Competitiveness got the better of Culpepper
Daunte Culpepper was never the same after his near-MVP season in 2004. It's finally clear why.
As a Vikings beat writer during Culpepper's career in Minnesota, I watched a friendly and eternally optimistic star transform into a far more serious veteran who overreacted to the consequences of an outdated contract and got caught up in a part of his career that most players intentionally avoid.
|Joe Robbins/Getty Images|
|After a near-MVP season in 2004, former Vikings quarterback Daunte Culpepper never rebounded from a 2005 knee injury.|
Culpepper started on that path even before suffering a catastrophic right knee injury in 2005. Not long after discovering that his 10-year contract contained no more guaranteed money, Culpepper took over his business affairs and set out to rectify what he considered an untenable situation.
All professional athletes are competitive, but I've covered none that topped Culpepper. He would take any bet at any time. There is a legendary story about him walking across the locker room on his hands. I never saw someone so driven to perform better -- at anything -- than him.
But Culpepper tapped that competitiveness in his new role as a player-agent and, it seemed, grew obsessed with "winning" every battle on the business side. I don't think it was as much about the raw cash as it was about the game: He wanted to "beat" every contract negotiator he faced.
So Culpepper wasn't satisfied when the Vikings added almost $8 million in guarantees to his contract before the 2005 season. After throwing 39 touchdown passes in 2004 and finishing second in the MVP balloting, Culpepper believed he had earned more.
He was so single-minded that he seemingly didn't acknowledge the poor timing of his next contract request, coming just three months after an injury that had ended some players' careers. Moreover, Brad Childress was in his first month as the Vikings' new coach, and the last thing he wanted to talk to his new quarterback about was money.
Culpepper believed he was looking out for his best interests, but the Vikings and some other NFL teams saw him as a player whose full attention wasn't on the field. That's the whole purpose of agents -- to serve as a buffer with management so that the player can apply his 100 percent focus to the field.
Culpepper already had a huge task in front of him after the injury: In addition to rehabilitating, he needed to change his style of play in anticipation of reduced mobility. Every minute he spent on the business end was one less minute he had to work on his game.
I don't know if Culpepper ever recovered, in body or mind. He wasn't the same player in Miami or Oakland, and based on his e-mail to ESPN's John Clayton and others today, Culpepper remains obsessed with maintaining his rights as a player. He never accepted that, fair or not, he lost every ounce of his leverage the moment his knee collapsed. His best course of action would have been to stop crusading, recapture the optimism of his youth and devote his energy to rebuilding his career.
But in the end, Culpepper was too competitive to do that. He couldn't admit defeat, even if it was temporary.