Daunte Culpepper was born on January 28, 1977, in Ocala, Florida, a town 30 miles south of Gainesville and an hour northwest of Orlando. When his biological mother, Barbara Henderson, was pregnant with him, she was serving time for armed robbery. Just a teenager, she worried that she wasn’t capable of handling the responsibilities that came with motherhood. She didn’t believe the baby’s father was, either.
With nowhere to turn, Barbara went to Emma Culpepper, a 50-year-old woman who worked in the same correctional facility. Emma knew a thing or two about raising kids. When her brother died, she took in his four children. When a sister-in-law got into trouble, she was handed seven more. Emma also was the mother to three kids she adopted herself. Accepting Daunte into her home seemed like a stretch, but she couldn’t say no.
With so many kids running around the house, Emma employed a mix of love and discipline to keep everyone in line. Daunte was accepted by his new brothers and sisters, and he grew to view them as his real family. When Barbara was released from prison in 1983, she knocked on Emma’s door and asked for her son back. Six-year-old Daunte grudgingly moved in his with mother. But when it became clear that the youngster was miserable, Barbara felt she had no choice but to return him to Emma’s care. Years later, Daunte would come to appreciate the sacrifice his mother made.
The nurturing environment Emma provided for Daunte did wonders for him. Engaging and curious, he showed aptitude in diverse areas, including music. In elementary school, Daunte learned to play the bass violin.
The youngster was also a great athlete. Baseball, football and basketball were his three favorite sports. In the spring and summer, he was a dominant pitcher. In the fall, he lined up at wide receiver on the gridiron. Come the winter, he laced up his high-tops as a cat-quick guard.
began to crystallize in his early teens. During football practice one
day, he retrieved a wayward pass and gunned it back to his quarterback.
When a coach noticed his strong arm, he switched Daunte’s position.
From that day on, he was a QB.
When Daunte entered Ocala’s Vanguard High School in 1991, he already harbored dreams of an NFL career. He watched the Pro Bowl on television every February, fantasizing about following in the footsteps of guys like Dan Marino and Doug Williams. Daunte also continued to star in baseball and basketball, but football was his passion. He worked non-stop during the season and spent long hours in the weight room year-round. As he matured, his body filled out, and his strength and speed increased. Daunte, who stood taller than six feet and tipped the scales at more than 200 pounds, boasted a 36-inch vertical leap and was clocked at 4.6 in the 40.
The problem was that Daunte didn’t hit the books as hard as the weight room. A lazy student, he let his grades slip dangerously low. Heading into his senior year, Daunte’s GPA fell below 2.0. Recruiting interest in him almost disappeared. His home state’s Big Three—Florida State, Miami and Florida—had all been hot on his trail. But now all of them backed off.
Gene McDowell, the head coach at the University of Central Florida in nearby Orlando, saw an opportunity to land a prize recruit. With the school looking to make the leap from Division 1-AA to 1-A, Daunte was the sort of player who could give the Golden Knights instant credibility. McDowell dispatched offensive line coach Paul Lounsberry, a former high school teacher, to help Daunte and his coach, Phil Yancey, develop a study program to raise his grades.
Daunte swallowed his pride and did whatever was necessary to succeed in the classroom, including retaking several freshman English courses. His improvement in school coincided with a sensational senior football season.
Entering the 1994 campaign, Vanguard was among the favorites for the 5A state championship. Daunte was the team’s unquestioned leader. His favorite target was one of his cousins, Kenny Clark. The Knights blitzed through the regular season, and then met Bradenton Southeast and their star, Peter Warrick, for the state title. The contest was tight throughout. With time running out in the fourth quarter and Vanguard down by two points, Daunte guided his team into field goal position. But the kick sailed wide, and the Knights lost 19-17.
Despite the defeat,
Daunte became the the state’s most decorated senior. With 3,074
yards and 31 touchdowns through the air, and another 602 yards on the
ground, he was an easy selection as Florida’s Mr. Football. Daunte
also quarterbacked his team to victory in the annual Florida-Georgia All-Star
The senior quickly transitioned to the hardwood, where he averaged 19.5 points, 11.3 rebounds, 5.1 assists and 3.3 steals. Next Daunte enjoyed another exceptional campaign on the mound. In fact, he was drafted by the New York Yankees in the 26th round in front of future major leaguers Juan Pierre, Rob Machowiak and Robert Fick. Football, however, remained his focus.
ON THE RISE
Though several major programs expressed renewed interested in Daunte, he stuck with UCF. The school had shown faith in him, and he felt it was only right to return the favor. Coach McDowell was elated to hear the news. A year away from going D-1A, the Golden Knights faced a killer schedule in 1995, including a clash with Florida State. Daunte took over an offense that featured three big-play threats, running back Marquette Smith and receivers Rufus Hall and Todd Cleveland. UCF’s challenge would be holding down opponents, particularly with the graduation of defensive leaders Travis Cooper and Greg Jefferson.
Daunte’s college debut was an impressive one. In a 40-32 victory over Eastern Kentucky, he competed 20 of 25 attempts for 254 yards and three scores. He bettered those numbers the following week, piling up 307 yards through the air in a 35-21 win over Carson-Newman. In October, Daunte set a school record by hitting on 14 of 16 passes against Samford. Weeks later, in UCF’s final 1-AA game, he engineered a 37-17 victory over Maine. The Golden Knights finished the year at 6-5.
On a team just a game above .500, Daunte was easily the most compelling figure. Though injuries and off-field problems prevented Hall and Cleveland from ever setting foot on the field, he put up excellent passing stats, including 2,071 yards and 12 TDs. A Third Team 1-AA All-American, he was voted his team’s Most Outstanding Offensive Rookie. The media picked up on Daunte’s story as the season progressed, with The New York Times among several national newspapers and magazines that ran features on him. College & Pro Football Newsweekly named him to its All-Freshman team, while The Poor Man’s Guide to the NFL Draft honored him as its Freshman Offensive Player of the Year. Even presidential candidate Phil Gramm wanted to align himself with Daunte, stopping along the campaign trail to shake hands with him.
The Golden Knights
would need all the support they could get in 1996, their first at the
1-A level. The defense looked stronger, thanks to the linebacking crew
of John Bryant, Nakia Reddick and Kendrick Thomas. On offense, Smith was
gone, but Cleveland returned, with receiver Mark Nonsant joining him in
the starting lineup. Also in the mix was Daunte’s cousin, Kenny
Daunte, of course, was the key to UCF’s fortunes. Rated the nation’s 13th best passer by Bob Griese’s College Football Yearbook, he opened the campaign by leading the Golden Knights to a rousing comeback win over William & Mary. The next Saturday, however, Daunte sprained ahis ankle, an injury that required nearly a month to heal. When his play fell off, so did UCF’s. Daunte wasn’t 100 percent until October, when he propelled his team to an easy victory over Samford.
Daunte got banged up again in UCF’s stiffest test of the season, on the road against Georgia Tech. He separated his shoulder in the second quarter, but refused to leave the game. Buoyed by their leader, the Golden Knights stayed close before losing 27-20. The team wound up the year at 5-6. Daunte’s best performance came against UAB, as he threw for 421 yards and three touchdowns in a win over the Blazers.
Staying healthy was one of Daunte’s main concerns heading into the 1997 campaign. UCF’s schedule—which included matchups against Nebraska, Mississippi State and Auburn—was one of coach McDowell’s. He also wondered about his roster, which had fewer veterans than in years before. After losing their first three, the Golden Knights rallied to take five of their last eight to post another 5-6 mark.
Daunte played well from the season's opening snap. Behind his three touchdown passes, the Golden Knights fell to Ole Miss by a point in OT, and he racked 299 yards and three more TDs in a 33-31 defeat at South Carolina. Against mighty Nebraska, UCF went into halftime up 17-14 before losing by two touchdowns.
Daunte took out his frustrations on some of UCF’s lesser opponents. He amassed 390 yards of offense in a 34-17 drubbing of Toledo, and hit on 26 of 45 passes for 385 yards and five touchdowns versus Northeast Louisiana. For the year, Daunte set 15 school records, including 3,086 yards passing and 3,524 yards in total offense. A finalist for the Davey O’Brien Award, he was ranked as a top pro prospect by many college and NFL guides.
Those reports gave Daunte a lot to think about. Entering the 1998 NFL draft was a real consideration. But with Peyton Manning and Ryan Leaf available, Daunte realized his value would be somewhat diminished. Emma also had a say. She wanted Daunte to get his degree, and also preached to him the importance of remaining loyal to UCF.
When Daunte announced his decision to stay in school, a collective cheer went up around campus. But the Golden Knights were rocked a short time later when several players admitted to using stolen cellular phones and bogus calling cards. The scandal cost coach McDowell his job. Former NFL QB Mike Kruzcek, the team’s offensive coordinator, was tabbed to replace him.
Daunte focused on his upcoming senior season. UCF’s most committed player in the weight room, he also worked hard with Kruczek watching film. His goal was to master the coach’s high-octane offense.
The talk among UCF players was gaining a bowl bid, the first in school history. The fans and media, meanwhile, speculated on Daunte’s chances of winning the Heisman. Just about every major publication profiled him, and he was a subject of features on Good Morning America and George Michael’s Sports Machine.
Daunte started the season in dominant fashion. In a 64-30 rout of Louisiana Tech, he racked up 479 yards of offense and six scores. A week later, he did himself one better, accounting for seven TDs against Eastern Illinois in another blowout. The Golden Knights were handed their first loss by Purdue, 35-7, but Daunte stayed in the hunt for the Heisman with another strong performance.
UCF followed that
loss with five straight victories. Against Bowling Green, Daunte threw
for 320 yards to move ahead of Darin Hinshaw as the school’s all-time
leading passer. He spearheaded a dramatic comeback versus Toldeo, topping
10,000 yards in total offense for his career along the way. Daunte established
another UCF mark with 438 yards through the air against Southwestern Louisiana.
Later in the season, he leapfrogged Doug Flutie into eighth on the NCAA
yardage list in a 44-32 win over Youngstown State. After his final home
game, Daunte grabbed a microphone and thanked the fans for their support.
With a record of 9-2, the Golden Knights hoped for an invitation to the Oahu Bowl in Hawaii. But when Miami beat UCLA in December, UCF found itself on the outside looking in. The same thing happened to Daunte in the Heisman balloting. In fact, he wasn’t even invited to New York for the award ceremony. The snub was suprising considering his numbers. Daunte passed for 3,690 yards and 28 TDs, and rushed for 463 yards and 12 more scores. By completing 73.6% of his passes, he also surpassed Steve Young’s single-season NCAA mark in that category.
Eager to show his stuff to NFL scouts, Daunte made himself available for every major college All-Star game. He was one of five quarterbacks expected to go in the first round of the draft, the others being Tim Couch, Donovan McNabb, Akili Smith and Cade McNown. Working in Daunte’s favor was his speed, arm strength and poise in the pocket. Playing under Kruczek in a pro-style offense also raised his profile.
But there were questions about Daunte. At 6-4 and more than 250 pounds, he was a big target when he dropped back to pass. His release was a tad slow, and his hands were small, too. There were also concerns about his level of competition at UCF.
On draft day, the first three selections were Couch, McNabb and Smith. Then the waiting game began for Daunte. It lasted for more than an hour, until the Minnesota Vikings’ turn came around. Though the team had two quarterbacks, Randall Cunningham and Jeff George, management couldn’t pass on someone with Daunte’s talent. Head coach Dennis Green was roundly criticized for the choice, but brushed aside the naysayers. Daunte skirted further controversy by signing quickly, agreeing to a five-year deal worth $7 million.
Daunte spent the majority of his rookie campaign watching from the sidelines. He appeared in one game, late in the fourth quarter of a laugher over the San Francisco 49ers. Besides that action, George took most of the snaps, and had a good year. His favorite targets were Randy Moss and Cris Carter, while Robert Smith carried the load in the backfield. The Vikings went 10-6, good for a Wild Card berth. But after handling the Dallas Cowboys, they got hammered by the St. Louis Rams.
MAKING HIS MARK
Minnesota’s playoff disappointment forced changes in the roster. Offensive linemen Jeff Christy and Randall McDaniel were let go, while the team added defensive tackle Chris Hovan in the draft. But the biggest development involved Daunte. George and Cunningham were both allowed to walk, with the assumption that Dan Marino would be signed. When negotiations stalled, Green handed the starting job to Daunte. The media, fans and even some teammates wondered aloud about the logic of this decision.
Facing a whole new level of pressure, Daunte started his first game as a pro in the MetroDome against the Chicago Bears. He silenced his critics with a wonderful performance, passing for 190 yards and running for another 73 yards and three touchdowns. The Vikings won, 30-27.
Minnesota surrendered plenty of points during the 2000 season, but Daunte guided a high-flying offense that lit up the scoreboard. He and Moss were a particularly effect tandem. Early in October, they hooked up for three TDs in a 31-24 victory over the Lions in Detroit. The following week, Daunte brought the Vikings back in Tampa, beating the Bucs with 10 points in the fourth quarter.
He grew increasingly comfortable in the offense as the season progressed. In November, the Vikings closed out the month with four wins in a row, and Daunte played a starring role. On back-to-back Sundays, he threw for three scores, and also torched the Carolina Panthers with almost 400 yards of total offense.
The Vikings entered
December on a roll, but three straight losses sapped some of their confidence
heading into the playoffs. At 11-5, Minnesota received a bye in the first
round, and then hosted the New Orleans Saints the next weekend and won
in a rout. Daunte was named NFL Offensive Player of the Week for his effort.
But it all came crashing down in the NFC Championship Game, as the New
York Giants romped 41-0.
The loss overshadowed what had been a marvelous season for Daunte, who was voted to the Pro Bowl. With 3,937 passing yards and 33 touchdowns, he enjoyed one of the best years ever by a Viking quarterback. His 98.0 QB rating ranked fourth in the NFL. He also tied a team record held by Brad Johnson by throwing for a touchdown in 15 consecutive games. A lot of his success was a direct result of his scrambling ability. Daunte finished second on the club in rushing with 470 yards, and hit paydirt seven times. He often caught opponents by surprise with his knack for breaking the pocket and outrunning defenders.
Minnesota had difficulty recovering from their post-season embarrassment. Smith shocked fans by retiring, and sack master John Randle left via free agency. Green tried to right the sinking ship, but momentum had the Vikings pointed in the wrong direction. The team limped home at 5-11 in 2001, and Green was shown the door.
Daunte shouldered much of the blame for Minnesota’s collapse. Respecting his ability to run with the ball, enemy defenses altered their approach to him. They didn’t blitz as often, and with Minnesota’s ground game struggling minus Smith, Daunte was put in more obvious passing situations. His interception total rose, as did the number of hits he took. In fact, Daunte’s season ended after 11 games with a bum knee. At the time, he had 2,612 yards and 14 TDs through the air. Though he established a team mark by completing 64.2% of his attempts, he also threw 13 INTs.
The slide continued for the Vikings—and Daunte—in 2002. Mike Tice was named the new head coach, and controlling the team’s myriad personalities was a challenge. Rookie Bryant McKinnie held out because of a contract dispute, but Moss was the biggest headache. In fact, Tice came up with the “Randy Ratio,” a formula to ensure that the moody wide receiver saw the ball often enough.
Tice’s rules affected the entire offense, most notably Daunte. Knowing that he had to look for Moss, he often forced passes into coverage, which predictably led to interceptions. Impatient and confused in the pocket, Daunte also began fumbling on an all-too-regular basis. Thirteen games into the ’02 campaign, the Vikings were a dismal 3-10.
Over the last three contests, however, Daunte sparked a turnaround. He completed 67 of 94 passes for 868 yards and four TDs, and led the Vikings to a trio of victories. For one of the wins, a 32-31 nailbiter at New Orleans, Emma was in attendance, which gave Daunte a special thrill. Looking more like his old self, Daunte was also re-emerging as a rushing threat. Indeed, he ended the campaign with team records for rushing (609 yards), attempts (106) and TDs (10) by a quarterback.
Daunte experienced a rebirth of sorts in 2003—including in his wallet. In July, Minnesota owner Red McCombs signed him to a 10-year, $102 million contract, the richest in team history. Again, people questioned the wisdom of investing so much in a player who seemed to have so much o prove. Daunte was motivated to show he was worth every penny.
During the off-season, he met regularly with offensive coordinator Scott Linehan. The idea was to revisit the fundamentals. Daunte worked on his footwork and release as well as throwing deep and protecting the ball. As training camp opened, he felt more confident and comfortable.
Tice, by contrast, was on the hot seat. Running back Michael Bennett was out, and his likely replacements were Onterrio Smith and Doug Chapman. The good news was that McKinnie was happy and in camp. Along with guard Chris Liwienski, he anchored an improving offensive line. The defense also looked to be better, especially with the addition of rookies Kevin Williams and E.J. Henderson (under new defensive coordinator George O’Leary).
Of course, the spotlight still focused on Daunte and Moss. If the pair could rediscover their on-field chemistry, the Vikings might make some noise.
The season couldn’t
have started on a more promising note. Minnesota won in Green Bay, and
Daunte played with poise and intelligence. When the Vikings swept through
September with three more victories, fans began dreaming of the Super
Bowl. Daunte fed their fantasy by being named NFC Offensive Player of
The Vikings ran their record to 6-0 into October, but then the defense began to wear down. Minnesota lost four straight, and split their last six to finish at 9-7 and out of the playoffs. All things considered, however, it was a good year. Moss returned to form with 111 receptions for 1,632 yards and 17 TDs. Smith developed into a weapon out of the backfield, while Bennett fought his way back from injury. Most important, Daunte re-established himself as one of the NFL’s best quarterbacks.
Though he missed two games with a painful injury—two broken bones in his back—Daunte had the finest season of his career. Named the NFC starter in the Pro Bowl, he passed for 3,479 yards and 25 touchdowns against only 11 interceptions. Nearly half of his scoring tosses covered more than 40 yards, as he fully utilized the speed of Moss and rookie Kelly Campbell. Daunte completed 65% of his attempts to set a team record, and posted a QB rating of 96.4, third best in the league. He also ran the ball effectively, averaging 5.8 yards per carry with four TDs.
Back at the top of the NFL, Daunte entered the 2004 campaign under the heaviest of expectations. Many felt the Vikings were a good bet to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl. Tice was an excitable coach who seemed able to get through to his players, while the team bolstered the defense by taking USC's Kenechi Udeze in the first round of the draft. Of course, with Daunte and Moss, the offense was as explosive as ever.
After five games, the Vikings were 4-1, and Daunte was on pace for another record year. In a little over a month, he had 18 touchdown passes against only three interceptions. Three times he had tossed five TDs in a game. With Peyton Manning lighting it up in Indianapolis, it appeared likely that Dan Marino’s mark of 48 touchdowns would fall.
As the season moved into November, opponents began exploiting Minnesota's defense, which again was showing major holes. Despite several amazing performances by Daunte—including 363 yards and four TDs (for a 117.9 QB rating) against the Packers—the Vikings dropped three in a row. In the Green Bay loss, Daunte tied it up with a 17-yard scoring pass to Moe Williams late in the fourth quarter. But the Pack breezed down the field on their final possession and won 34-31.
to struggled into December, losing four of their last five in the regular
season. Still, the club managed to make the playoffs with an 8-8 record.
Facing the Packers for the third time of the year, the Vikes traveled
to Lambeau Field on a frigid January weekend. Daunte and crew took the
crowd out of the game early in the first quarter. After scrambling to
his left, he found Williams along the sideline, and 68 yards later it
was 7-0 Minnesota. The Vikings never looked back, rumbling to a 31-17
victory. Daunte complete 19 of 29 passes for 284 yards and four touchdowns.
Despite the disappointment
of his team's showing in Philly, Daunte has to admit that the '04 campaign
was satisfying from a personal viewpoint. Though overshadowed by Manning,
who finished with 49 TD passes, he enjoyed one of the finest seasons in
NFL history, including 4,717 yards passing, 39 touchdowns and a 110.9
QB rating. All established career-highs for Daunte, and helped him earn
a return trip to the Pro Bowl.
Moss's future in Minnesota unclear, Daunte has become the man who makes
everything go for the Vikings. He may not look like your typical NFL quarterback,
but he doesn’t play like one, either. And he thanks Emma everyday
Teammates joke that if Daunte wasn’t a quarterback, he’d be a guard. That’s how big he is. Daunte uses that size to his advantage. He’s difficult to sack, able to release the ball with a defender draped over him, and in the open field he can deal out his share of punishment.
Daunte’s ability to tuck it under and run keeps defenses honest. His skill as a passer, however, is just as bothersome to opponents. He is very comfortable sitting in the pocket, making his reads, and hitting receivers downfield. John Madden says he’s the best in the league at sensing pressure and stepping up to avoid it. In fact, Daunte gets in trouble when he doesn't let plays develop.
Daunte has always been able to throw the bomb, and with a tall, athletic receiver like Moss, he’s more than happy to toss one up for a jump ball. Though he sometimes struggles with his accuracy on shorter passes, his touch is amazingly soft for someone with such a powerful arm.
Daunte enjoys the
pressure of the big game. He likes being the guy teammates look to in
the clutch, and they respond to his leadership. While Daunte has yet to
win a significant championship at any level of his football career, he
appears to have what it takes to do so.
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