Culpepper, Daunte 1977–
Daunte Culpepper 1977–
Professional football player
Minnesota Vikings quarterback Daunte Culpepper has come a long way from his birth in a Miami jail. His mother, Barbara Henderson, was in a correctional facility at the time after being convicted of armed robbery. Henderson gave up her child to the woman who had raised her—Emma Culpepper, who ran a home for troubled teenaged girls. Culpepper’s start in life may not have been the most auspicious, but he has since risen to the heights of athletic glory.
Culpepper grew up in Ocala, Florida and attended Vanguard High School. He was a multi-sport star earning varsity letters in football, basketball, baseball, and even weightlifting. Although his first love was football, he excelled in baseball and was even drafted by the New York Yankees organization in 1995. He turned down professional baseball because of his immense talent as a football player—talent that was noticed early on in his high school career by each of the state’s major colleges. Those schools lost interest, though, when after his junior year it appeared that he would be academically ineligible to compete at the Division I-A level. Only the University of Central Florida (UCF) stuck with him. Coaches from the school worked with Culpepper’s high school counselors, and he was able to retake some of the courses he had failed. By the time he graduated he had put much more focus on academics and made the honor roll his senior year, thereby attaining a cumulative 2.0 grade point average and securing his eligibility to play college football. Culpepper told the Tampa Tribune about that time in his life: “I was always able to do the work, but I was a big procrastinator. I always thought, ’I’ll get by. I’ll do something to get by.’ I was at a point where I wasn’t getting it done. It was a big checkpoint for me in my life.” In his senior season, Culpepper led his team to the Florida state playoffs throwing for 3,074 yards and 31 touchdowns. He earned All-American honors and was named Mr. Football by the Florida Athletic Coaches Association. After his senior season, which included a renewed respect for work in the classroom, all the big schools had renewed their interest, but Culpepper remained loyal to the school that had stuck by him. He would attend UCF.
In 1995 Culpepper moved into the starting quarterback position for UCF and immediately justified his coaches’ faith in him. He threw for 2,071 yards as a freshman and was named the team’s Most Outstanding Offensive Rookie. The following season Culpepper was named Offensive Most Valuable Player after throwing for 2, 565 yards and guiding UCF to 242.45 yards per game, 18th best in the nation. Though he had excelled in his first two seasons at UCF and led the school to respectability in its first year as a Division I-A program, he introduced himself to the nation in 1997 in a game against the Nebraska Cornhuskers. The game was played in front of 75, 327 rabid Cornhusker fans in Lincoln, Nebraska. Culpepper and his team stunned the sixth-ranked squad in the nation by going into half-time with a 17–14 lead. The UCF Golden Knights were 42-point underdogs, but they forced Nebraska to scramble for a 38–24 win. For the game Culpepper completed 24 of 35 attempts for 310 yards and scored a touchdown on a ten-yard run. Nebraska coach at the time Tom Osborne told Sports Illustrated:
Born on January 28, 1977, in Miami, FL; son of Barbara Henderson, raised by Emma Culpepper.
Career: Drafted by the New York Yankees, 1995; University of Central Florida (UCF), quarterback, set over 30 offensive records, 1995–98; drafted by the Minnesota Vikings with the eleventh overall pick in the NFL draft, 1999, starting quarterback, 2000-.
Awards: In high school named All-American; named Mr. Football, Florida Athletic Coaches Association, 1994; Most Outstanding Offensive Rookie, UCF, 1995; Pre-season All-America selection, 1996; Offensive MVP, UCF, 1996; Davey O’Brien National Quarterback Award, finalist, 1997; first-team Ail-American, NFL Draft Report, 1997; male amateur athlete of the year in the state of Florida, Florida Sports Hall of Fame, 1997; pre-season first-team Ail-American, 1998; first team All-American, Sports Network and NFL Draft Report, 1998; Player of the Year, Sports Network and NFL Draft Report, 1998; Independent Player of the Year, Football News, 1998; Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award, finalist, 1998; finished sixth in the Heisman Trophy vote, 1998; NFC starter in the Pro Bowl, 2000; All-Pro, USA Today, 2000; NFL Quarterback of the Year, National Quarterback Club, 2000; All-NFC, Pro Football Weekly, 2000.
Addresses: The Minnesota Vikings, 9520 Viking Drive, Eden Prairie, MN 55444.
“If he were at a more prestigious institution, you’d probably hear more about him for the Heisman.” Though UCF again finished with a losing record in the team’s second year playing at the Division I-A level, Culpepper earned himself and his team national recognition. He finished his junior season setting 15 school records directing an offense that finished fourth in the nation in total offense with an average of 320 yards per game.
Culpepper entered his final season in 1998 as one of the most highly publicized quarterbacks in the nation. He was named a pre-season first team All-American by nearly every major sports publication including Sports Illustrated, The Sporting News, and Football Digest. Far from weighed down by the lofty expectations, Culpepper’s star rose to new heights. He led the fledgling Division I-A program to a 9–2 record and broke virtually every offensive record at UCF—more than thirty in all. He broke a 15-year-old single season completion percentage mark set by Steve Young, completing over seventy percent of his passes (.736). He joined only two other players in NCAA history to pass for over 10,000 yards and rush for over 1,000 yards during the course of their careers. He finished the year third in the nation in passing efficiency (170.24) and led the Golden Knights to 377.55 yards of offense per game, third in the nation overall.
After Culpepper’s monster year his name was mentioned for all the major awards in college football. He was a first team All-American and All-Independent selection and won the Sammy Baugh National Passer of the Year Award. Culpepper was a finalist for the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award, was a semifinalist for the Davey O’Brien national Quarterback Award, and finished sixth in the Heisman Trophy vote. He finished among the top candidates for player of the year in several publications, but the NFL Draft Report named him the Dream Team Player of the Year as the nation’s top draft prospect. All of this talk led to a debate as to whether a black quarterback would ever be the number one pick in the NFL. But the talk did not effect Culpepper. As he told the Tampa Tribune in 1998, “I’m just a quarterback. I don’t get into the black quarterback thing too much in terms of us playing the position. I’m just thankful for guys like Randall (Cunningham), Doug Williams and Warren Moon. If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”
Culpepper was the eleventh player selected in the 1999 NFL draft and the fourth quarterback taken overall behind Tim Couch, Donovan McNabb, and Akili Smith. Though he was a standout prospect, he spent his first year in the pros holding a clipboard as the Minnesota Vikings third-string quarterback behind veterans Randall Cunningham and Jeff George. In his rookie season he saw action only once, rushing three times for six yards. Vikings coach Dennis Green received tremendous criticism for wasting such a high draft pick on a quarterback when he could have taken Jevon Kearse, who turned out to be the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Year, especially when the team had two established players at the position already. But Green, sometimes affectionately referred to as the Nutty Professor by Vikings fans, had a surprise waiting for the Minnesota faithful.
After the 1999 season Green shocked everyone around the NFL by releasing both of his experienced quarterbacks and handing the keys to the Vikings’s high-powered offense over to an untested 23-year-old. Over the course of the off-season Culpepper prepared himself for the big time with Vikings All-Pro receivers Cris Carter and Randy Moss. The trio trained together for two months prior to the season at Carter’s Boca Raton home. Carter, the team’s unquestioned leader, liked what he saw. He told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that Culpepper was “going to be a tremendous player. He’s always been a tremendous player. Players like him don’t come around that often.” Carter and Green believed in the young quarterback, but even Culpepper’s most ardent backers had no idea how high his star would rise in just one season.
In Culpepper’s first game as a starter he threw for 190 yards, but he rushed 13 times for 73 yards and scored three touchdowns in the Minnesota victory. Culpepper became the first Viking to score three rushing touchdowns since Herschel Walker in 1991. Culpepper proved that he could pass in his second game, throwing for 355 yards against Miami. From that point on, Culpepper’s dream season just got better. He was named NFC Offensive Player of the Week twice, and in a playoff victory against the New Orleans Saints, he was named NFL Offensive Player of the Week. In his first year as a starter, Culpepper led his team to the NFC Championship game. Carter told the New York Post before the championship game that Culpepper’s success had surprised even him: “I knew he’d be the kind of player he is; I just didn’t know how much of it he’d get in his first year. He’s learned very, very fast. He’s played extremely well under adverse conditions and situations, and adjusted. He’s had a great year.”
The Vikings came up short in the championship game against the Giants as Culpepper suffered through the game with a badly sprained ankle. But for a first-year starter to lead his team to within one game of the Superbowl was astonishing. And his statistics told the story of his dream season. For the 2000 season Culpepper led the NFC with 33 touchdown passes and ran for seven more becoming only the fifth quarterback in the history of the NFL to pile up 40 combined touchdowns. He threw for 3, 937 yards and finished fourth in the NFL with a quarterback rating of 98.0. At the end of the 2000 season Culpepper earned a starting spot in the Pro Bowl, was named All-Pro by USA Today, was the 2000 NFL Quarterback of the Year by the National Quarterback Club, and was named to the Pro Football Weekly All-NFC team.
The only problem with accomplishing so much in your first year as a starter is having to repeat that success the next year. Culpepper addressed that issue with Kevin Seifert of NFL Insider prior to the 2001 season: “I’m very confident, but not too cocky because you always have to work to get what you want. One of the downsides of this year is that other teams are going to know what we can do. I don’t think they’re going to underestimate us, so that makes it harder. But we’re ready to work, and we’re willing to take whatever measures it takes.” Culpepper has proven that he has always been able to do what it takes in high school, through college, and now in the NFL.
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, July 27, 2000.
The New York Post, January 14, 2001.
Sports Illustrated, September 22, 1997.
The Tampa Tribune, August 28, 1998.
—Michael J. Watkins
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