Swinging for the Fences The Vikings' Daunte Culpepper is the biggest, strongest, fastest quarterback the NFL has ever seen, but he's using a different set of chains to measure his forward progress: He wants to be the best ever

December 04, 2000

Go ahead and stare. Everybody else does. Do you think you are the
first? Friend, you are only the latest.

Daunte Culpepper, quarterback of the Minnesota Vikings, has just
entered the cafeteria at the team's training facility in suburban
Minneapolis. You stand to make your greeting and study him with
the wariness of one who trusts nothing but his own eyesight.
Culpepper, dressed all in black but for a diamond sparkle in each
ear, strides over with a hand outstretched. You would be wise to
show good manners in the presence of such a person, but your
mouth has formed a perfect circle, as if frozen in the act of
uttering the inevitable: "This guy plays quarterback? Come on!"

This is how it happens. Culpepper walks in, and everyone else
disappears as he thrusts them into the shade. Too taken aback
for words, some have whistled. Others (they can't help
themselves) mumble something that sounds like "That big summitch
is a...what?"

Listen, now, to the voices of the awed and thunderstruck who saw
him before you did. "Saw him on TV, the first time," says Dennis
Green, Minnesota's coach. "Saw him when he was a senior at
Central Florida, playing Purdue. I loved everything about him. I
loved his poise. I loved the fact that he's a classic drop-back
passer, even though he can run. I loved how competitive he was
and how he's got that spark, how he makes things happen. As I
watched that game, it came to me that Daunte represents the new
generation. Quarterbacks keep getting bigger and more athletic,
and he is leading the way."

"I happened to be in New York when we drafted him," says the
Reverend Keith Johnson, the Vikings' team chaplain. "He walked
out on the stage, and he had on a light-colored suit, white
almost. He had a shine on him, like a light. It drew me so much
that I had to follow him. I followed him around the room, just
keeping my distance, and the whole time he was shining. I tell
people Daunte's got a glow. The light is definitely on him."

"I'm in the locker room, and this guy walks in," says Bubby
Brister, Culpepper's backup, who joined the Vikings in the spring
for his 14th NFL season. "I didn't know Daunte, and I didn't
recognize him. But I look at this big ol' guy, and I think, Holy
smoke, if that's Daunte Culpepper...he's huge!

"I've been around awhile, and I can tell you: He's the biggest,
strongest, fastest quarterback that ever was."

No one would mind terribly if you blinked and started muttering
in disbelief. The man is something to behold, all right, but
unlike you, he has not left his manners at home. "Daunte
Culpepper," he says to you, still humble enough to take nothing
for granted, including the notion that he doesn't require an
introduction.

Culpepper might be the largest starting quarterback in pro
football history, but his size has become little more than a
curious aside now that the Vikings, at 10-2, are tied with the
Raiders for the record in the NFL and their second-year
quarterback is the most surprising story in the league. (In
Dallas on Thanksgiving, Culpepper was 15 of 22 for 205 yards and
two touchdowns in the Vikings' 27-15 victory over the Cowboys.)

Perhaps the salient fact about Culpepper's rise to prominence is
that only a year ago critics were saying he was a bust. In 1999
he didn't throw a pass in a regular-season game. In the three
preseason games in which he appeared he looked baffled as he
fumbled an exchange from center, made bad throws and suffered
seven sacks that set the Vikings back 53 yards. Except for the
six snaps he took in a blowout win against the San Francisco
49ers in Week 8, Culpepper spent the year as a scout-squad
player, third on the depth chart behind veterans Randall
Cunningham and Jeff George. The label "long-term project," which
to the discerning NFL observer might as well mean "wasted pick,"
was attached to his name. Green praised Culpepper's development,
even while saying that he was two or three years from being
ready.

As the season moved along and Culpepper watched from the
sideline, newspapers ran stories about the class of '99
quarterbacks, considered by many to be the best since 1983 when
likely Hall of Famers John Elway, Jim Kelly and Dan Marino turned
pro. Five of Culpepper's contemporaries--the Cleveland Browns' Tim
Couch, the Philadelphia Eagles' Donovan McNabb, the Cincinnati
Bengals' Akili Smith, the Chicago Bears' Cade McNown and the
Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Shaun King--earned starting jobs, while the
big man from Central Florida, selected with the 11th pick of the
first round (he was taken after Couch, McNabb and Smith), looked
good only when he was stepping off the team bus.

Even Johnson noted that the light he saw emanating from Culpepper
had weakened since that day in April when he was drafted. "I
never doubted myself last year because I understood what my role
was," says Culpepper. "If Coach Green said my role was to run
scout squad every day and try to make our defense better, then
that was what I was going to do. Don't get me wrong. It was
definitely tough at times, but I always knew my day was coming."

"As a quarterback you're not ready to play as a rookie," says
Green. "When we drafted Daunte, we told him, 'This is the perfect
situation for you. You are the only quarterback in this draft
who's going to be given a chance to watch. They all think they're
ready to play, but they're not.'"

No one seems less surprised by Culpepper's performance this
season than Culpepper, who with so few starts to his credit
already has given thought to his legacy. Asked to describe the
future he envisions for himself in the NFL, he doesn't hesitate.
"I want to be the best ever," he says. "I don't want to be just
somebody who played the game. I hang out with [wideout] Randy
[Moss] more than anybody else on the team. We sit around and
talk, and it's like, 'When we walk away from football, we don't
want people ever to forget.' When they mention this game, I want
them to say 'Culpepper and Moss,' just like they now say 'Montana
and Rice.'"

Culpepper pauses and seems to be considering how his words will
appear in print. "I know that's saying a lot," he continues, "but
I'm saying it anyway. You've got to set your goals that high. If
you don't, why are you playing? The best ever--that's what I'm
after."

For now, however, Culpepper's only place in the history books
concerns his weight. Recent reports have put him at 269 pounds,
but in fact, the most he's ever weighed is 265, and that was
during the off-season. His playing weight, he says, fluctuates
between 255 and 259, occasionally dipping to 250. "The guy is
like a fullback," says Buffalo Bills linebacker Sam Rogers. "You
have to make sure you get your head across his body when you try
to tackle him. You can't come from the back side and expect to
blow him up, because you'll bounce right off."

In football big has always been good, and big and fast is even
better. Running the 40-yard dash for NFL scouts one day last year
before the draft, Culpepper put up a 4.42, faster than a lot of
skill-position players--players he outweighs by as much as 70
pounds. He has bench-pressed 405 pounds and squatted more than
500, numbers that would make most offensive linemen proud. In the
off-season the Vikings measured players for body fat. Culpepper's
result was somewhere between 7% and 8%. In high school he
competed on the weightlifting team. He was also a highly touted
high school basketball player, recruited by some of the best
programs in the country, Kentucky's among them. To complete the
picture, Culpepper was drafted by the New York Yankees in 1995,
when he was 18 years old.

Over the past 10 years the Vikings have started nine players at
quarterback, most of them capable passers. Green has had six
quarterbacks lead Minnesota to the playoffs seven times since he
took over in 1992. The impact of the quarterback on the success
of the offense has not been especially crucial in large part
because Green's system is so quarterback-friendly. The playbook
and terminology are easy to master, and simple adjustments can be
made for any defense. All this helps a young quarterback, as does
being surrounded by superior talent.

This season the offensive line and tight ends have been pounding
opponents, and wide receivers Moss and Cris Carter, the NFL's
seventh-leading career-yardage receiver, seem infinitely more
dangerous now that the Vikings have established a strong running
game with Robert Smith, who is averaging 5.4 yards a carry and is
the league's second-leading rusher. Culpepper, heretofore the
unknown in the equation, has shown such confidence that Minnesota
seems able to dig itself out of any hole, as it did on Oct. 22,
when Culpepper erased an 11-point deficit with two fourth-quarter
touchdown passes to beat the Bills 31-27.

"We could be good for a long time," says Sherm Lewis, the
offensive coordinator, who joined the Vikings this year after
eight seasons in the same capacity with Green Bay. "And Daunte,
given time, is going to develop into a great leader. His head is
probably swimming a little bit right now from all that's been
thrown at him, but he picks up things, and he's very coachable.
He sees the field, and he knows when to get rid of the ball."

Lewis says Culpepper has proved to be adept at picking up "hots,"
meaning he has a knack for making the proper reads in the face of
stunts by the defense. "Talk to anybody in the NFL," he says,
"and he will tell you that for a first-year guy not to miss a
single hot all season long, well, it just doesn't happen, but
Daunte hasn't missed one since training camp. It's hard to
believe."

At this point it's also hard to believe that Culpepper came to
the starting job less by design than by default. In the
off-season Green let Cunningham go, and although Green made a run
at re-signing George, it was only after the Vikings had flirted
with Marino, the former Miami Dolphins quarterback, who
ultimately chose to retire. Green's search to fill the position
was of particular concern to Carter, who'd hoped the team would
keep George. Last year George, now with the Washington Redskins,
won nine of 12 starts, passed for 3,452 yards and was spectacular
in the playoffs, throwing three touchdown passes in a win against
Dallas and four in a loss to the St. Louis Rams. From what Carter
had seen of Culpepper in practice, it seemed a stretch to imagine
that the kid could equal George's output. "It was hard to get
excited about Daunte," says Carter. "He was just another rookie."

Had the team signed Marino or anyone else to start, Culpepper
says he would not have been upset by the prospect of spending
another year on the bench. At the time the Vikings were talking
to Marino, he says, "I tried not to worry about it. My attitude
was, Great, if they bring him in, then I'll get to learn from a
legend. My focus was always on getting ready to play."

Not wishing to alienate the young quarterback, Green made a point
of checking in with Culpepper and informing him about any
behind-the-scenes developments. "I'd bring him in, sit him down
and talk," says Green. "The idea from our end was, Whoever comes
in here, you can compete with him. We're not going to hand the
job to anybody. Daunte was always consistent in his response, and
he was always confident. 'Coach,' he'd say, 'I can do this job
for you.' He was so insistent that there were times when I had to
say, 'Hey, take your time. We'll work this out.'"

Green finally found a solution in Brister, a mature, affable and
well-traveled veteran. Brister was smart, and he had enough arm
strength to get the ball deep to Carter and Moss, but he was also
at a point in his career where he understood that his greatest
contribution might be in a secondary role. Culpepper could
benefit from Brister's experience, and the 38-year-old Brister
was eager for a new start after getting benched in Denver.

When Brister and Minnesota came to terms, Green took the
extraordinary step of designating Culpepper as the starter. He
did so in April, prompting protests from Vikings fans fixated on
the image of the bumbling rookie. "I knew what they were saying,"
Culpepper says. "They were saying, 'What on earth is Denny Green
doing?' I heard it all, but it was easy for me to stay positive
because I knew something they didn't: I was ready."

Culpepper was riding around in his Lincoln Navigator, listening
to music, when Alex Wood, Minnesota's quarterbacks coach, reached
him on his cell phone. "You're our guy, Daunte," Wood told him.
"We're going to go with you."

"Daunte is always positive and upbeat, always respectful," says
Wood. "He's the kind of guy, he tried to call me Alex, but you
could tell it was tough for him. He'd say, 'Hi, Alex,' but he
couldn't say it right. Now he just calls me Coach."

Green hired Wood on March 15, 1999, a month before the Vikings
drafted Culpepper. The young coach had not yet signed his
contract when Green gave him his first assignment: Get to Florida
and interview Culpepper. Less than 24 hours into the job, Wood,
who'd last coached at James Madison in Harrisonburg, Va., was
interviewing the quarterback in Orlando. "Like everybody else, I
couldn't believe how big he was," says Wood.

While in Orlando, Wood also watched videotape of Culpepper's
senior season. Wood marveled at his presence in the pocket. Even
when pressed by the rush, Culpepper kept his eyes downfield and
held his ground. He never looked jittery or scared, and he was a
load to bring down. Opposing players slammed headlong into him,
then fell to the ground while he completed the play. As a senior
Culpepper set an NCAA record for single-season completion
percentage with a .736 mark. Woods says that on tape Culpepper
looked as if he could place the ball wherever he wanted, no
matter how small the window. Finally, he had a big league arm,
the kind that made an 80-yard passing strike look routine. "He
was the player I was always looking to recruit [while at James
Madison] but could never find," says Wood. "There's a reason for
that: There's nobody out there like him."

Wood also interviewed and studied film of the other quarterbacks
in the '99 class, and when Green asked him to rank them, he put
Culpepper first, followed by Syracuse's McNabb and Oregon's Akili
Smith. Devising his own list, Green had Culpepper as the top
player in the entire draft, just as he'd named Moss the best in
1998. But unlike Moss, who fell to Minnesota at the 21st pick
because other teams had questions about his character, Culpepper
had a file that included no instances of trouble, or at least
none of his own making.

Born to a 16-year-old incarcerated for armed robbery, Daunte was
adopted by a woman named Emma Culpepper when he was a day old and
raised in Ocala, Fla. He never knew, never even met his father;
practically all he would ever know about the man was that his
first name was David. Emma raised 13 other children, but Daunte
never doubted her devotion to him. "She was loving and caring,
but she was also very strict," he says. "She could lay down the
law on me. She was both my mom and my dad."

While some might use such a beginning as an excuse for failure,
Culpepper regarded it as an opportunity to prove himself. "I feel
I'm blessed, one of the luckiest guys ever," he says. "Maybe if
I'd had a dad, he would have messed some stuff up for me. Maybe
he would have babied me in certain situations when I didn't need
to be babied." Now engaged to marry Kimberly Rhem, the mother of
his three children, Culpepper says he "grew up wanting to be a
father, the kind I never had."

Heading into the draft, the Vikings needed help on defense, but
Green refused to bypass a chance to take Culpepper, even though
selecting someone like Jevon Kearse, the pass-rushing prodigy
from Florida, seemed to be the obvious move. More than all the
other quarterbacks coming out that spring and more than highly
skilled running backs Edgerrin James and Ricky Williams, both of
whom were drafted before him, Culpepper was the player Green
believed could revolutionize his position. "I really believe
Daunte Culpepper and Randy Moss are going to set the league on
fire," says Green. "They'll do this because Daunte can throw a
beautiful deep ball and because Randy has the speed to run out
there and get it."

After Minnesota's first minicamp that spring, Culpepper received
permission from Green to work out for 10 weeks with Moss and
Carter at Carter's FAST (Functional Agility Speed Technique)
Program in Boca Raton, Fla. The Vikings encourage their young
players to participate in off-season training at their practice
facility, but Culpepper thought he could get in better shape and
hone his skills more quickly in Carter's program. Supervised by a
staff of professional trainers, the players worked out five days
a week in a Gold's Gym and on a high school football field,
challenging one another's endurance in what Culpepper describes
as "the most rigorous training" he's ever done.

"I got to know the type of guys they are, and they got to know
me," he says. "They got to see that I was as willing to work as
hard as they were. You have to bond with your teammates. People
say it doesn't carry over to the field. Well, they're wrong."

Even though those weeks in Florida brought Culpepper and his
receivers closer together, Moss and Carter still grew impatient
with his youthful mistakes when training camp opened. They rode
him hard in practice. Concerned that Moss and Carter were being
too rough on the quarterback, Sherm Lewis talked with them about
what it would take to help Culpepper have a big year. "We sat in
a classroom," Lewis recalls, "and the meeting lasted five or six
minutes--that's all. It wasn't a lecture. We just talked man to
man. Nobody in the league knows the passing game better than Cris
Carter, but he's also very emotional because he wants to win so
badly. The last thing he said to me was, 'You'll have to remind
me every once in a while to back off.'"

Carter and Moss haven't always been able to hold their tongues.
In the locker room after a 31-24 win over the Detroit Lions on
Oct. 1, Moss complained to reporters about a bad throw by
Culpepper. Across the room Culpepper was taking questions about
the same play when Moss, who'd caught three touchdown passes that
day, suddenly approached him. "Do you expect a lot out of me?"
asked Moss, according to a story in the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

"Yes," came Culpepper's reply.

"I expect exactly the same thing out of you," said the receiver.

The young quarterback was unfazed by the incident; he says he
understands the fire that drives his receivers. "Randy and Cris,
their passion for the game is just like mine," says Culpepper.
"They want to win, and they're willing to give whatever it takes.
I don't get mad when they say something negative about me. I try
to look at it as being positive. Sometimes I might say something
back to them in the same way. I can take it, but I can give it
too." This give-and-take was on display in Dallas on
Thanksgiving, when Moss and Culpepper got into it on national TV.
Early in the third quarter Culpepper prudently threw the ball
away to avoid a blitz. Moss, who had gotten behind the secondary
on the play, yelled at Culpepper as they walked off the field.
There was a protracted--and heated--exchange of opinions between
the two young stars, and then the storm broke, and the two shook
hands. Just to make sure there were no hard feelings, Culpepper
hit Moss with a 36-yard touchdown pass later in the game.

In fact, Culpepper and Moss have been regularly punishing
opposing defensive backs since October. "Daunte understands now
what we're trying to do," says Carter. "And he's gotten much more
accurate with his throws." Indeed, since that game, Culpepper has
completed 63.5% of his passes, fourth in the league over that
stretch.

Culpepper and Moss now display a spontaneity the likes of which
the NFL hasn't seen in a while. Other quarterbacks and receivers
produce better numbers, but they do so by picking defenses apart
with the kind of precision that the Minnesota tandem abandons as
the game goes on. After he caught a 39-yard, fourth-quarter
touchdown pass from Culpepper to help beat the Bills in Week 8,
reporters asked Moss to name the play that sent him racing to the
back of the end zone. Moss said the play call was, "Moss, go get
it."

Born little more than two weeks apart, Culpepper and Moss are 23,
still young enough to believe anything they desire can be theirs.
"What we really want," says Culpepper, "is to dominate."

Three weeks after being upbraided by Moss in front of reporters,
Culpepper is back in the team's cafeteria, with yet another
victory to celebrate. With what must feel like all the eyes of
the world upon him, he announces that he has figured something
out. He knows what it will take for him to dominate, for him to
be remembered as the best quarterback of all time, not just the
biggest. "My goal is to win the Super Bowl," he says. "You know
how you do that, don't you?"

When your answer is too slow in coming, Culpepper raises a hand
and displays a single finger. "One week at a time...."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY HEINZ KLUETMEIER COVER Daunte Culpepper of the Vikings: "I want to be the best Ever!" COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JEFFERY A. SALTER/SABA DOUBLE TROUBLE Green believes the parlay of Culpepper's arm and Moss's speed will pay off for years to come. COLOR PHOTO: WINSLOW TOWNSON SHAKIN' IT Culpepper presents a unique challenge to defenses because he's big and strong but can fly when he has to scramble. COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES BIG ADVANTAGE At 6'4", 258 pounds, Culpepper, here eluding Tampa Bay end Chidi Ahanotu, is bigger than many of the defensive players he faces. COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES WORKING VACATION This summer Culpepper (right) went through his training paces for 10 weeks with Carter (left) and Moss in Florida. COLOR PHOTO: JEFFREY A. SALTER/SABA PUMPED-UP RESUME Culpepper was on his high school's weightlifting and basketball teams and was drafted by the Yankees.

"I want people to say, 'Culpepper and Moss,'" Culpepper says,
"just like they now say 'Montana and Rice.'"

"You can't come from the back and expect to blow him up," says a
Bills linebacker. "You'll bounce right off."

"They want to win," Culpepper says of Moss and Carter, "and
they're willing to give whatever it takes."

"I tell people Daunte's got a glow," says the Vikings' team
chaplain. "The light is definitely on him."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)