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� 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 nose-tackle 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 stunt.
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."