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.