Tice, a former NFL tight end who played 14 seasons (including three with the Vikings), is popular with his players, keeping them entertained with innovations such as F--- with You Fridays, weekly team meetings in which he pokes fun at players, coaches and himself by way of PowerPoint presentations. Last Friday players howled when Tice showed a photo of two obese, naked men--one of whom bore a resemblance to special teams coach Rusty Tillman--snuggling on a couch.
on sunday, after having spent a restless night grappling with the decision, Tice allowed the injured Moss to suit up and make a token appearance (two snaps) in the game; he did so because he believes his talented receiver, who has never missed a game in his seven-year career, values his streak. Deprived of his primary scoring threat, Tice made a call early in the second quarter that was truly out of character: a running play on first-and-goal from the one. Moe Williams's scoring run with 11:34 remaining was only the second rushing touchdown of the season for Minnesota and the first by a running back. In contrast, Culpepper has 11 touchdown passes of five yards or less.
"My friends back home in Pittsburgh are convinced that Tice is in a big-money fantasy league with Daunte as his quarterback, and that's why he calls pass plays in the red zone," says backup tight end Sean Berton. "Hey, he's the lowest-paid coach, so he's got to make up for it somehow."
On Sept. 21, nine days after tight end Jim Kleinsasser suffered a season-ending ACL injury in Minnesota's 35--17 season-opening win over the Dallas Cowboys, Berton, a second-year player who'd been cut by Minnesota three weeks earlier, was headed to a Hooters in the Mall of America when Tice called and asked, "How'd you like to start this Sunday?" Actually, he played primarily on special teams in his first three games back with the team. But in the opening quarter against the Titans, Berton caught his first NFL pass, a 14-yarder from Culpepper, who had rolled right, patiently waited for Berton to get open and delivered a strike.
In fact Culpepper connected on his first nine passes, finally throwing an incompletion midway through the second quarter. The man, after all, is not perfect--though you'd never know it from listening to him. "Pep says he's the best at everything," says running back Michael Bennett, who had one carry on Sunday after missing the first five games with torn cartilage in his right knee. "Basketball, Madden [ NFL Football], pool, bowling, dressing, fishing--it goes on and on. It's like, I'm Daunte Culpepper, and I have the best cellphone ring. Muscle & Fitness magazine has rated his body as one of the best on the team three years straight, but we hear rumors that Pep went to school with the editor."
culpepper has always been hypercompetitive, according to his best friend, Larry Tucker, with whom he has been waging battles since the two were toddlers sharing a babysitter in Ocala, Fla. "If you say he can't do something, he's going to do it just to prove you wrong," says Tucker, a teammate of Culpepper's at Central Florida who regularly attends Vikings games. "A couple of years ago in Orlando we were out in a parking lot outside a club with a bunch of his cousins, and someone told him he couldn't do a flip anymore because he's too big. Right there, with all his jewelry on, after drinks, he did a back handspring from a standing position."
"The thing is," says Vikings safety Brian Russell, "Daunte is good at everything. He's always talking about how much he can lift, and this year at training camp he was bragging about how he could power-clean 350 pounds, which is a hell of a lot. He showed us his form, and it was so terrible that everyone started betting him he couldn't. There was about $5,000 on the line. The strength coach wouldn't let him in the weight room--there's no way they were going to take that chance--so Daunte snuck in and lifted 350 easily. He didn't even collect the money; he just wanted to prove he could do it."
With stories like that, it's tough to discount even Culpepper's most outlandish claims. For instance, when it comes to the ball-carrying abilities of rookie running back Mewelde Moore, a onetime fourth-stringer who slipped and ducked his way through the Titans for 138 yards on 20 carries, Culpepper is effusive, complimenting the patience, intelligence and poise of the fourth-round draft pick out of Tulane. Yet when asked after Sunday's game whether he or Moore, a fourth-round draft choice of the San Diego Padres in 2000 who spent three summers as an outfielder in the minors, was the better baseball player, Culpepper shook his head vigorously. "I'd have to say I'm better," said Culpepper, an outfielder in high school who was taken in the 26th round of the 1995 draft by the New York Yankees. "I can hit that ball a country mile."
"In Pep's dreams," Moore retorted, laughing. "I'm sure he can do a lot of things, but as far as hitting a baseball better than I can, I don't think so."
Perhaps, at some later date, that argument, too, will be settled. In the meantime, as Moore and his teammates are well aware, the Vikings' fate is in Culpepper's uniquely talented hands.