One by one, they've left the field. First John Elway in a blaze of Super Bowl glory, then Steve Young in a haze of concussions and, finally, Dan Marino with every passing record but no ring. When Troy Aikman and Brett Favre retire soon, it will mark the end of, arguably, the NFL's greatest quarterbacking era. But already a new class of quarterbacks--bigger, stronger, faster, more mobile and more likely than ever to be African-American (eight of 31 teams have had black starting QBs this year, an all-time high)--are ensuring that the NFL is in good hands. And making the biggest impression is Daunte Culpepper, who has, at season's midpoint, led the Minnesota Vikings to an NFL-best 7-1 record.
At 6 feet 4 and 265 pounds, Daunte, 23, is the largest quarterback in NFL history. He has played quarterback since a youth-football coach saw him gathering up footballs downfield and hurling them back effortlessly. "I've never thought of my size as a hindrance," Culpepper says. In fact, it's his size, coupled with great speed for a big man (he runs a 40 in 4.5 seconds), that's made him the game's premier pass-and-run threat. Currently he ranks fourth in passing accuracy, while also having rushed the ball for more than 300 yards.
Drafted out of little-known University of Central Florida, Culpepper was the least prominent of 1999's ballyhooed crop of rookie QBs. Five of those rookies wound up starting last year, but Culpepper remained the third-string backup and didn't throw a single pass. "It was real tough watching those guys do their thing," he says.
But while rivals have battled injuries and erratic play in their sophomore seasons, Culpepper became only the third NFL quarterback ever to win his first seven starts. The league's history is filled with one-year wonders, but Vikings coach Dennis Green is convinced that Culpepper has all the physical tools, as well as the mental acuity to become a star in the league. Culpepper has "incredible fortitude and guts, and he loves to play the game to win," says Green.
Culpepper was lucky to take over a talented team with, in Cris Carter and Randy Moss, the best receiving duo in football. Says Culpepper: "Coach Green told me, 'You have a car with nothing broken--the brakes work, the front drive works, everything works. All you got to do is drive it.' And that's what I've done." But the veteran Carter says this is not a case of just running the team on automatic pilot: "Daunte has heart, which is the center of it all."
For the heart, Culpepper credits his foster mother, Emma Culpepper, who raised him as the last of her 15 foster children. He was born in prison to a teenage mother who was serving time for armed robbery. After her release, she reclaimed her young son, who was then about 5. The boy pleaded and soon was permitted to return to his beloved foster mom, whom he calls "Aunt Dollie." "She is a great lady who loved me unconditionally," he says. NFL fans are a bit more fickle. But if Culpepper maintains this winning pace, Minneapolis, a great football town with a history of near misses, will give him all the love he wants.