Brad Culpepper swam to the water's surface just in time to
remove his scuba mask, get his bearings and watch the boat that
had carried him out into the Gulf of Mexico sink to the bottom.
It was April 1990, and Culpepper was a junior defensive tackle
at Florida when he and his father, Bruce, and his father's law
partner, Ralph Haben, went scuba diving. With a gurgle and a
splash the 32-foot fishing boat, which had a damaged bilge pump,
was gone, and the three men were stuck in 60[degree] water, 15
miles from land. Brad and his father shed their scuba
tanks--Haben hadn't surfaced yet--and started to swim toward a
boat they saw in the distance. "Don't worry, Dad," said Brad.
"If you die, I'll eat you to stay alive." Six hours later and
seven miles from where their boat had sunk, the Culpeppers were
rescued by another boat, which had picked up Haben earlier.
At a scholar-athlete banquet in Orlando last June, Culpepper had
his audience on the edge of its seats as he neared the denouement
of his shipwreck tale. Before he could finish, though, the fire
alarm went off and the crowd scattered. Culpepper stood
dumbfounded, his moment in the spotlight ruined. Turns out his
twenty-two month-old son, Rex, had climbed onto his stroller and
yanked the alarm. "Kid stole my thunder," says Culpepper with a
shrug. "Aw, hell, it's not like that hasn't happened before."
Actually it's been going on throughout his eight-year NFL career,
and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 14-13 nail-biter over the
Washington Redskins in the NFC divisional playoffs ran true to
form. While Culpepper, the 6'1", 265-pound Bucs nosetackle, made
defensive line calls and devoured double teams, safety John Lynch
and defensive tackle Warren Sapp stole the show in the second
half with an interception and a fumble recovery, respectively,
that set up Tampa Bay's touchdowns.
"I am the player I am because of Brad Culpepper," says Sapp, the
NFL Defensive Player of the Year. "Other guys might get more
publicity. [Detroit Lions defensive tackle] Luther Ellis made the
Pro Bowl because he's good at pumping up the crowd. But I
wouldn't trade Brad for any nosetackle in the NFL. This team is
one step from the greatest show on earth, and the man beside me
is the one who's going to lead us where we want to go."
The final hurdle the 12-5 Bucs must clear to earn their first
trip to the Super Bowl is the St. Louis Rams in the NFC
Championship Game this weekend. It's an opportunity for Tampa Bay
made possible by the team's dominant defense. Last Saturday the
Bucs suffocated the NFL's second-ranked offense, holding the
Redskins to 157 total yards and their lowest scoring output of
the season. After Brian Mitchell returned the second-half kickoff
100 yards to put the Redskins ahead 10-0, Tampa Bay held
Washington to 26 yards in the game's final 13:24. "I don't
understand why everyone is so excited [now]," said Culpepper.
"We've been doing this all year long."
The Redskins' plan was to use two blockers to push Culpepper out
of his gap and run right over his real estate. Bad idea.
Culpepper embarrassed yet another team that underestimated him.
In the last three seasons he has averaged 78 tackles and eight
sacks--and has been selected to zero Pro Bowls. (Sapp, who has
averaged 60 tackles and 10 sacks over the same period, will be
making his third trip to Hawaii.) "I'm not jealous or upset that
others get all the credit," Culpepper said last Thursday while
sitting on the deck of the south Tampa house that he rents,
watching manatees swim in Old Tampa Bay. "The people who matter
know what I do."
You can now include the Redskins in that group. "Culpepper is the
key to their defense," said Washington left guard Keith Sims
three days before the game. Playing with a torn plantar facia in
his right foot, Culpepper held his ground last Saturday and
finished with six tackles. He also had an influence on those big
defensive plays by Lynch and Sapp. In the first quarter Lynch,
who rooms with Culpepper before games, missed a possible
interception, and Culpepper rode him hard about not leaping for
the ball. When he got his second chance after halftime, Lynch
skied for a wobbly Brad Johnson pass. "That was the turning
point," said Bucs defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin. "John
picked that pass, spiked it and yelled at our offense, 'It's your
turn, now go do something!'" Six plays later, on second-and-one
at the Washington two, Tampa Bay fullback Mike Alstott reversed
field and eluded five would-be tacklers to make the score 13-7.
Culpepper, who is two semesters shy of his law degree and
master's in sports administration at Florida, has made himself
indispensable in Tampa by mastering coach Tony Dungy's defense.
Factoring in the opposing team's tendencies, the audibles by its
linemen and tip-offs in its formations, Culpepper calls the Bucs'
stunts, occasionally arguing with Sapp right up until the snap.
"To most people it looks like a bunch of cows bouncing into each
other out there," says Culpepper, "but it's really an intricate
battle of technique and tactics."
If Culpepper thinks a team is about to double-team Sapp, he will
use a hand signal to call a stunt in which Culpepper seals off
the center and allows Sapp to loop behind him. In other
situations, he uses a different hand signal to call for a stunt
in which Sapp crashes toward the center and Culpepper loops
behind Sapp. Each game he decides on a code word to signal a fake
At the start of the fourth quarter, with the Bucs still trailing
by six points, Culpepper noticed that Redskins left tackle Kipp
Vickers, who was filling in for injured starter Andy Heck, was
wearing down. On second-and-12 Culpepper called for a straight
rush, and right end Steve White turned the corner and sacked
Johnson at the 32, knocking the ball loose. Sapp fell on it, and
the Bucs punched the ball into the end zone 10 plays later to go
ahead 14-13. A bad snap after Washington had lined up for a
50-yard field goal with 1:17 left clinched the game. "Very few
players get to the level of understanding that Brad has," says
Dungy. "His knowledge changes 15 plays a year, but they are the
15 plays that turn an 8-8 team into an 11-5 team."
Despite his success, Culpepper admits to still getting nervous on
cut-down day at the end of each training camp. He's been in Tampa
for six years now--the Bucs picked him up after he was cut by the
Minnesota Vikings, who'd drafted him in the 10th round in '92.
As if he's afraid his ship might sink at any moment, Culpepper,
30, soaks up every minute of life in the NFL, every play and
every perk that comes his way. Last week he went to a Dillard's
department store in Tampa for a complimentary seaweed facial,
manicure and pedicure, and left with his toenails painted red and
pewter. He has weekly radio and television gigs in Tampa. As part
of his TV deal Culpepper receives an outfit for each appearance
from a Ralph Lauren store. Last Thursday, as he left with a new
gray cotton roll-neck and blue slacks, Culpepper turned to the
clerks to clarify the fine print of their deal.
"I get new clothes for each game," he said with a wink. "So you
guys better get two more sweet outfits ready for me."