Daunte Culpepper made a great first impression with the Vikings
The 2000 season appeared to be a coming-out party as the first-year starter led Minnesota to the NFC title game
As the late Dennis Green prepared to coach his Minnesota Vikings against the New York Giants in the NFC Championship Game on Jan. 14, 2001, he was asked about his faith in going into such a big contest with his second-year quarterback and first-year starter, Daunte Culpepper.
“He’s had a great year,” Green told reporters. “Right now, Daunte Culpepper is the best quarterback in the NFC.”
The 2000 football season that led to that playoff game, a 41-0 loss to the Giants, appeared to be a coming-out party for Culpepper. And he was a great story: a big guy (6-foot-4, 260 pounds) from a tiny town (Ocala, Florida) and a (then) not-so-big college (Central Florida).
Reaching the NFC title game in his first season as a starter justified the Vikings’ selection of Culpepper in the first round of the 1999 draft. He was the 11th pick overall and the fourth quarterback taken behind Tim Couch, Donovan McNabb and Akili Smith, who went 1-2-3.
But despite having the opportunity to throw the ball to Randy Moss during his first five seasons (and Cris Carter during his first two), Culpepper’s career was plagued by inconsistencies — he threw 23 picks against 18 touchdowns during the 2002 season — and he would make just one more playoff appearance with the Vikings. A serious knee injury in his last season with the Vikings (2005) severely affected the rest of his NFL career, which featured brief stops in Miami, Oakland and Detroit.
Credit Culpepper with overcoming tremendous odds to make it as a football player. He was born in a Florida prison, the biological son of Barbara Henderson, who was serving time for armed robbery.
Henderson did the best thing she could to give her son a life: She gave him away. The recipient was a woman named Emma Culpepper, who got to know Henderson while working at a juvenile correction center.
“My story, from the day I was born, it would take probably a day or two to tell you everything,” Culpepper told reporters on the eve of the playoffs in 2001.
Emma Culpepper, 62 at the time, took in the boy — the last of her 15 kids, none of them her biological children.
“She was basically just on a mission always to help people,” Culpepper said after Emma Culpepper died in 2007 at age 92. “She instilled some great values in me and let me know it’s not where you’re at but where you’re going.”
It was clear that Culpepper was going places once he reached Vanguard High School in Ocala, Florida. He led the football and basketball teams to state championship games and was selected in the 26th round of the 1995 Major League Baseball draft by the New York Yankees.
But his love was football. At Vanguard, Culpepper was the big kid with the rifle arm that helped him win Florida’s Mr. Football in 1994. Years later he was recognized on the Florida High School Athletic Association’s All-Century team as one of the 33 best football players in state history.
Even though he played in the shadow of the University of Florida — the Gainesville campus is about a 45-minute drive north of Ocala — most of the major state schools didn’t offer Culpepper a scholarship because of his grades. In 1995, Culpepper accepted a scholarship to the University of Central Florida, which was entering its final season playing in Division I-AA.
By the time he left Central Florida, Culpepper held nearly all of UCF’s passing records and set an NCAA single-season record for completions (he completed 73.6 percent of his passes during the 1998 season).
Central Florida finished 9-2 that season, and wins over Purdue and Auburn opened eyes.
“I haven’t seen anyone better than Culpepper,” Bobby Bowden, Florida State’s coach at the time, said at a 1998 meeting of the Florida Sports Writers Association.
Culpepper’s success helped put Central Florida on the map and laid the foundation for a program that ended the 2017 season ranked No. 6 as the only undefeated team in Division I.
During his rookie season in Minnesota in 1999, Culpepper sat and watched Jeff George and Randall Cunningham. But Green was so enamored with Culpepper’s abilities that he named him the starter for the 2000 season, releasing Cunningham and declining to sign George in the process.
Culpepper was picked to play in three Pro Bowls during his NFL career, including a selection after his best season in 2004, when he threw for 4,717 yards and 39 touchdowns. He became known for getting his roll on during touchdown celebrations.
On the verge of becoming one of the great quarterbacks in Vikings history, Culpepper blew out his right knee the following season, tearing his anterior cruciate, medial collateral and posterior cruciate ligaments in a 2005 loss to the Carolina Panthers.
In recent years, Culpepper has remained out of the spotlight. Both the UCF sports information department and the Vikings said they had fallen out of touch with him.
He did make a 2013 appearance in London prior to an NFL game there between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Vikings. At the fan event, Culpepper was asked whether he had any regrets about his career.
“I don’t have any regrets,” Culpepper said. “I played the game the same way the whole time. I played to win.”
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