Showing The Way
Daunte Culpepper helped the Vikings get back to the business of football
During the 30-second moment of silence honoring Korey Stringer before the Vikings-Saints preseason game last Saturday night, Stringer's reluctant successor looked toward the ceiling of the Alamodome in San Antonio. "Look over me tonight, big guy," right tackle Chris Liwienski said to himself. "I need you."
Five days after Stringer was buried (he died of complications from heatstroke on Aug. 1) and two seconds after the tribute ended, Liwienski buckled his helmet. The Rolling Stones' Start Me Up blared over the PA system, and the announcer boomed, "Are you ready for some football?"
The show must go on, and it did. The Vikings may be the most resilient group in the NFL, and they may have the most gifted and resolute young quarterback on the planet too. Although they have lost four Pro Bowl offensive linemen in the past 18 months and were without the NFC's leading rusher in 2000, the retired Robert Smith, Minnesota shredded the Saints' defense.
First series: three plays, 80 yards, ending in a 60-yard touchdown laser from Daunte Culpepper to Randy Moss. Second series: 12 plays, 84 yards, capped by Culpepper's bulling 11 yards for a touchdown. Third series: three plays, six yards—but on the third play, Moss, who was open in the end zone, juggled and dropped a 37-yard Culpepper bullet. In 20 minutes against a defense that ranked eighth in the league last year, the Vikings' first-teamers got 170 yards and were stopped only by an uncharacteristic drop. Culpepper threw for 75 yards and ran for 66. "His arm is great, and I think he'd be one of the 15 best running backs in football if he played there," says New Orleans defensive coordinator Ron Zook. "But his poise—dadgum it! What he's done in one year boggles the mind."
Culpepper is only 24. However, in the wake of the Stringer tragedy, he has emerged as a leader, on and off the field, a rare role for a man who has made a mere 16 NFL starts. Culpepper is the one who met with keystones Moss and Cris Carter and said, "We're the ones who have to get this team through this."
One point became clear in the Vikings' cleansing 28-21 win over the Saints: As long as the 6'4", 260-pound Culpepper stays upright—and the deep ( Moss) and intermediate ( Carter) threats do likewise—Minnesota has a chance to make up for a leaky line and the loss of Smith. Liwienski isn't the only greenhorn. Replacing Pro Bowl left tackle Todd Steussie, who signed with Carolina as a free agent in March, is Brad Badger, who flunked his only previous starting trial, with the Redskins in 1998. At running back speedy first-round pick Michael Bennett showed he can get around the corner, carrying nine times for 79 yards and two touchdowns.
Liwienski is 26, good in run-blocking, subpar in pass-protection for a tackle. A 1998 seventh-round draft choice out of Indiana, he was released by the Lions during that preseason and signed by the Vikings. He spent his first two seasons mostly either inactive or on the practice squad, then made one start last year. After Saturday night's game, he stood outside in the evening heat and looked back on the previous 11 days. "We're just trying to hold together," he said. "For me, it's strange. I spend the off-season getting reading to compete for the left guard job. Now I play a game tonight for a good friend. It's tough."
In his hotel room on Saturday afternoon, offensive line coach Mike Tice got a call from Titans line coach Mike Munchak, expressing condolences. "I'm glad no one was in that room with me because I cried like a baby," Tice said as he stood outside the locker room after the game. "It's not fun for me now. I don't know when it will be."
Inside, Tice could hear owner Red McCombs walking through, shouting, "Purple pride! Purple pride! We're a juggernaut!" The show goes on. And the team with the heavy hearts just might put on a very good one in 2001.