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The Inspiring Story of NFL Star Daunte Culpepper

Elizabeth Russo Sports /

From a young age, Daunte Culpepper knew he wanted to play football. Despite his unusual upbringing, this soon-to-be NFL star would not let anything get in the way of his dreams to make it big. Here's his story.

Where It All Began

Today, he's a successful NFL star. But Daunte Culpepper's life hasn't always been smooth sailing. The former quarterback had a record-breaking career - but his roots are what shaped him into the player he became.

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During his time in the NFL, Culpepper quickly became one of the best quarterbacks of all time, specifically in Minnesota Vikings franchise history. The forty-five-year football champ proved his strength, mobility, and overall athleticism, which made him the ultimate player. But off the fields, his life was just as remarkable.

His Roots

Born to Barbara Henderson on Jan. 28, 1977, in Ocala, Florida, Henderson was just a teenager when she gave birth to the future NFL quarterback. As it turned out, the athletic gene ran through his veins. His uncle, Henderson's brother, is a former NFL linebacker, Thomas "Hollywood" Henderson.

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Unfortunately, after Culpepper was born to his single mother, the young mom could not care for Daunte. And he was adopted at birth. Soon enough, there was a new mother figure in the picture who became a huge influence on Daunte. But we're not there just yet...

Trouble With the Law

Growing up, Barbara Henderson found herself hanging out with the wrong crowd. Eventually, her misbehavior caught up with her, and as a result, the Florida native ran into trouble with the legal system. Little did Henderson realize what the next few years would bring her…

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At an early age, Henderson was busted for armed robbery, and the young teenager ended up serving time for the crime she committed. Henderson was sent to Florida's Lowell Correctional Facility - and it was there that things took a wildly unexpected turn.

The Visit That Changed It All

As a result of her criminal behavior, Barbara spent her teenage years - and then some - incarcerated. Although she was in jail, it didn't stop her from seeing her then-boyfriend at the time. And that's when things got incredibly complicated for Henderson.

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As fate would have it, the future NFL star was conceived during one of these prison visits. And his biological mother spent nine months of her prison sentence pregnant. Henderson was a young teenager, which only made things more complicated. And from there, the questions started spiraling.

A New Wave of Concerns

Teen pregnancy is difficult enough. So for the young Barbara Henderson, becoming pregnant in jail left her mind running wild. Once she found out the big news, many questions and concerns hijacked her Lowell Correctional Facility cell. And perhaps with good reason.

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She had no clue what would be of her future baby. After all, she was spending her days inside a prison cell. Barbara had no idea if her baby's father would even be able to care for their son alone. There were so many questions to be answered. Little did she know that the solution to all her questions was hiding in plain sight.

Enter Emma

This brings us to the other half of our story: Emma Culpepper. Back in 1977, the then 62-year-old was a housemother at the correctional facility where Barbara was serving her time. Little did anyone know that things would change forever when their paths would eventually cross.

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The 62-year-old woman worked her whole life and was coming close to ending her time at the correctional facility. In fact, Emma was just about ready to retire from her job and move on to a new phase in her life - but things were about to take a sharp turn...

Becoming "Mom"

Until that point, Emma had raised 14 kids - none of them being hers. Emma and her husband, John, had no biological children of their own. Nonetheless, they certainly had a full household at all times. And while her husband passed away in 1956, that didn't stop her from keeping her doors open.

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This devoted mother figure knew how to keep her hands full at all times. Not only did she raise her deceased brother's four kids, in addition to her sister-in-law's seven children, she also adopted three more children. But soon, she was going to add another addition to her household.

A Risky Request

Somewhere along the way, during her sentence, Barbara Henderson crossed paths with the correctional facility's housemother. And while neither of them knew it yet, both of their lives were about to be altered forever - all thanks to an ultimate, life-changing proposal.

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As her due date continued to inch closer, Henderson was on a mission: to find the right person to take care of her precious child. And sure enough, it didn't take long before Emma topped her list of prospects. After pleading with the housemother to look after her baby, nothing would ever be the same.

The Dilemma

After all, Emma Culpepper had a massive decision on her hands. What was she supposed to do? On one end, she was exhausted - more than ready to retire after all her years of working in the facility. But after Barabara Henderson's proposal, suddenly, a new thought popped into her mind.

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How could she say no to a teenage girl who so desperately needed her help? The mother of fourteen lingered on the decision but knew at the bottom of her heart what she wanted to do. And so, on a fateful day in January, Mrs. Culpepper braced herself as she opened up her home - again.

Welcoming Daunte

On January 29, 1977, Emma Culpepper became a mother again - one day after Daunte's birth. "The mother asked me to take him, and I did," Culpepper later recalled of the decision that changed it all. "I just took him and trusted God." In the span of mere months, her life had done a total 180.

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Up until now, she was planning to retire. But instead, the selfless woman welcomed her fifteenth child into her one-story, white stucco house. And in a matter of time, her unexpected bundle of joy would go on to become one of the most successful athletes of all time.

His Childhood

Emma Culpepper had plenty of experience raising children, to say the least. So when her latest addition joined the family, although there were some adjustments - like having 14 brothers and sisters - Daunte was met with a whole lotta love. And as he grew older, he began to explore his passions.

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At 13 years old, Culpepper knew football was his destiny. In a training camp interview, Daunte recalled, "I picked the ball up, and I slung it all the way back to the quarterback. Ever since then, I've been a quarterback." And boy, was he right. The young dreamer would one day go on to play in the NFL.

Becoming an NFL Prospect

Once Culpepper entered high school, he instantly became a hardworking, high-achieving multi-sport athlete. The Yankees even named him in the 26th round of the 1994 MLB draft - but his heart remained with football. The young star to be started as a high school quarterback for three seasons.

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Breaking record after record in high school, Culpepper had become a hot item as a potential NFL draftee in the 90s. With much talent and drive, the quarterback led his high school team to an undefeated season. He was even named "Mr. Football" at the end of his high school football career by the Florida Athletic Coaches Association.

Academic Struggles

But as he was getting ready to go pro, there was one major hurdle he had to overcome. His GPA wasn't college-ready. Colleges were looking for athletes that would be successful on and off the field. Luckily for Culpepper, Central Florida offensive coordinator Paul Lounsberry saw the potential in him and fought to help him succeed.

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Culpepper hit the books and studied before and after school to ensure he would succeed academically. He needed four Bs and two A's his last semester to be college admission ready. Luckily for Culpepper, he worked hard and "got like a 2.00000001," he later recalled.

A Surprise Visit

With his grades in check and a pro-career on the horizon, Culpepper had almost reached his goal of joining the NFL to play professionally. However, he was about to receive a surprise visit from a long-lost someone, which could have shifted the course of his teenage years.

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In 1983, as Barbara Henderson was released from jail, she had one thing on her mind: to find Culpepper and take her son back. Sadly, by that point, Daunte had formed a deep connection to the only family he had ever known. And so, as hard as it was, his biological mother supported his decision to stay with the Culpeppers.

Choosing UFC Knights

Determined to reach the college football field, Culpepper played hard and worked even harder. And his loyalty landed him a spot at the University of Central Florida. His coaches at Vanguard High School were thrilled with the young QB's decision to become a Knight.

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He knew the University of Central Florida was the right place for him. "UCF gave me a plan to get eligible, and I took that to heart," Culpepper said. "If they were going to make that much effort to get me, I knew I'd be in good hands. I felt I could repay them." Daunte attended UFC for four years and majored in secondary education.

Making Headlines as a Freshman

Culpepper immediately excelled on the field, impacting the future of the UFC Knights. The superstar athlete debuted his freshman season in 1995. And at the end of his freshman campaign in Orlando, he took the title of Third-Team I-AA All-American honors and started as QB his sophomore year.

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Instantly, the teenage football star made his mark on the field. "Spectacular and extraordinary do not begin to describe it," UCF Knights head football coach Gene McDowell said, referring to Daunte's early days on the field. "My guess is that it was the best first-time performance by any freshman quarterback at any level."

Facing Injuries for the First Time

Killing the game early on, NFL Draft Report named Culpepper its premier sophomore in 1996. Daunte was also named the second-best quarterback in The Sunshine State according to Florida Sportsfan Magazine, right behind the Florida Gators' Danny Wuerffe. However, his sophomore year didn't go just as planned…

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For the first time in his college career, Daunte got hurt on the field, halting his playtime. During a game against the Gamecocks in 1996, Culpepper sprained his ankle, sidelining him for ten quarters over a five-game stretch. He returned to the field a month later... only to separate his left shoulder two weeks later.

Getting Noticed

Luckily for Culpepper, he quickly bounced back from the injuries and had a strong Junior year on the field. Culpepper took his game to new heights as a junior and transformed into an offensive juggernaut by the end of the year, wowing scouts and fellow football players over the nation.

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Things got serious for Culpepper when he took the Knights all the way to a record-high nine-game win in the 1999 NCCA campaign. Nebraska All-American rush end Grant Wistrom noticed his talent during his junior year, calling him "one of the best quarterbacks in the country." Daunte continued to reach all-time highs his senior year.

Setting All-Time High Records

Not only was Daunte deemed as one of the best quarterbacks in UFC history, but after hitting so many milestones, he completely re-wrote the UFC record books. During his junior year, he ranked fourth in the whole country in total offense with an average of 320 yards per game. Talk about a strong player.

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Culpepper managed to take the Knights to new levels. With him on the team, the Knights finished 11th in the nation with an average of 289.7 yards per game and set a team record of nine games in the 1998 NCAA campaign. Additionally, Culpepper was about to achieve a personal goal: receiving a college degree.

Ending the 1998 NCCA Season Strong

Come senior year, Daunte Culpepper had proven to be the star quarterback the UCF Knights recruited. It was important to Daunte's mother that he finished his four years academically and received a degree, which he did! Not only did he get that degree - but he also made the dean's list the last two semesters with a 3.0 GPA.

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The soon-to-be pro ended his four-year journey at UCF with 11,412 passing yards, 84 touchdown passes, 1,020 yards, and 24 touchdowns on the ground, making him unstoppable. He won the Sammy Baugh Trophy, an award given to the nation’s top passer in college football, finished sixth in the 1998 Heisman Trophy voting - plus much more.

Joining the Minnesota Vikings

As expected, Culpepper earned various accolades at the end of the 1998 NCAA season and was named First-Team All-American according to NFL Draft Report. So when he joined the Minnesota Vikings after he graduated from college, audiences everywhere expected a whole lot from the young athlete.

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The Vikings made Culpepper the eleventh overall selection of the 1999 NFL Draft, putting him third in line for the quarterback position right behind Randall Cunningham and Jeff George. The young, hungry, and eager twenty-three-year-old Daunte Culpepper had everything going from him. But he was just getting started.

Getting off the Bench

Spending his rookie year on the Vikings bench, Culpepper learned a lot from Cunnigham and George. During the 2000 offseason, George was drafted to the Oakland Raiders, and Daunte stepped in. Head coach Dennis Green was a big fan of the rookie and named him starting quarterback for the 2000 NFL season.

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Daunte made sure to show up his second year. The athlete threw 190 yards in his first NFL start, with a 30-27 victory over the Chicago Bears. He also led his team to win the NFC title game against the Giants in 2001. He finished the year strong with 33 touchdown passes and 3,937 passing yards, and 16 interceptions.

A Tough Next Season (Or Two)

Despite having one of the best debut seasons the league had ever seen, Culpepper had two tough years ahead. Culpepper started as the golden player, but in his following seasons, he threw a combined 32 touchdowns and 36 interceptions, signaling something was off.

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Some blamed his two-year stint on the Madden Curse, but with Culpepper's downfall came the Minessota Vikings' downfall. The previous champs won a combined eleven games during that time and didn't qualify for the postseason for the first time since '95.

The Come Back Kid

Finally, in 2004, Culpepper returned to his old ways, dominating the game. Culpepper came out, guns blazing, and reached an all-time career-high with 4,717 yards, 39 touchdown passes, and 5,123 all-purpose yards, which broke Dan Marino's previous record. He was back.

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Culpepper's passing yardage total topped all quarterbacks in 2004, giving him his strongest NFL season during his career. However, the Vikings still remained a middle-tier team in 2004, and when the 2005 campaign began, the 28- year-old tore his ACL, PCL, and MCL and lost his spark. So what was next for Culpepper?

“Love Boat” Scandal

The Vikings placed him on their season-ending injured reserve list after his injuries. And not only was his time with the Vikings coming to an end, but Culpepper and three of his teammates were also charged with indecent conduct in December of 2005.

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The controversial "Love Boat" scandal caught the attention of media and fans everywhere. The incident allegedly involved Culpepper and some of the Vikings players partying a little too hard on a cruise on Lake Minnetonka. Luckily for Culpepper, the charges were dropped a few months later.

Saying Bye to Purple, Gold, and White

His time with the Minnesota Vikings ended, and Brad Johnson took over as QB, which led the Vikings on a winning streak. The star was traded to the Miami Dolphins, where he didn't seem to perform like his old self. Eventually, Daunte became ready for retirement.

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But in retrospect, Culpepper speaks highly of his time playing for the Vikings. "I was lucky enough for seven seasons to play there and see a sold-out Metrodome every home game. That was huge to me," he gushed. "I loved my Vikings days. The people in Minnesota were great."

Saying Bye To The Field

During the 2008 offseason, Culpepper received no offers and announced his retirement in September of that year. But he shocked spectators and sports fans alike after signing a two-year deal with the Detroit Lions just two months later. Sure enough, the powerful QB played his final NFL game the following year.

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Retired from the NFL, Daunte Culpepper signed with the Sacramento Mountain Lions of the defunct United Football League (UFL) from 2010 to 2011. "As far as me playing, I think I am done," he told The Orlando Sentinel in 2012. "That part of my book is closed."

“I Thank God for Her”

Sadly, that's not the only change the retired star was met with. In 2007, Emma Culpepper passed away at 92 years old. "She was always there. She was retired my whole life, so after school she was always there," Daunte recalled of his late mother's impact. But that's not all he had to say about her.

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"I can honestly tell you I don't know where I'd be [without her]. I'd probably have ended up in a foster home, something like that. I thank God for her," Culpepper further confessed. "I never really had a man in my life. She was my mother and my father."

The Legacy Lives On...

Following in his father's footsteps, Daunte Culpepper's son, Chayse Culpepper, has already created a legacy of his own. Although he's opted to play basketball instead, the now-20-year-old has a whole lot of love and support from his old man. And we can see why.

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"Growing up, my Dad always told me to keep working hard and that it was always going to pay off," recalled Chayse. "He wasn't always the highest-ranked player, but he would say don't pay attention to all the hype from everywhere else. Just keep working hard, and your time will come." Like father like son.

Moving Forward...

Daunte Culpepper has faced several highs and lows throughout his life - both on and off the field - including his induction into the Florida Sports Hall of Fame in 2019. The athlete also opened a sports bar, 'Culpepper's,' near the University of Central Florida campus, which closed a few later. "It was great," he proudly recalled.

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Thanks to Emma Culpepper, who decided to take a chance on a young infant many years ago, Daunte got to get a diploma, live out his NFL dream - and start a family with his high school sweetheart. "She… let me know it's not where you're at, but where you're going."