UCF great Daunte Culpepper embraces new role as ‘biggest cheerleader’

Orlando Sentinel
Orlando Sentinel
Former UCF quarterback Daunte Culpepper smiles during a UCF collective Mission Control event at the Celeste Hotel in Orlando on Friday. The event was held to help raise funds for the Otis Anderson Jr. Foundation and Mission Control. Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel/TNS

As Daunte Culpepper made his way through the lobby of the Celeste Hotel on Friday evening, he was greeted by enthusiastic UCF supporters eager for an autograph, to pose for a selfie or just to shake his hand.

At 6-foot-4, Culpepper stands out as a gentle giant, pausing to share his time.

“Orlando has always been great to me and UCF has been great to me,” said Culpepper. “I’m honored and glad to be here.”

It’s been more than two decades since Culpepper burst onto the college football scene, showcasing extraordinary athleticism for a quarterback. He grew into his role, displaying the poise and leadership needed as the Knights transitioned into a Division I-A football program in 1996.

Culpepper posted a record-setting All-American career, finishing sixth in the Heisman Trophy voting in 1998. He became the first UCF player selected in the first round of the NFL draft when he was taken by Minnesota with the No. 11 pick and spent 11 seasons with the Vikings, Miami Dolphins, Oakland Raiders and Detroit Lions.

But over the years, Culpepper has been as adept at avoiding the spotlight as he did avoiding defenders.

“I’ve been back here a lot more than people think, just never in front of the cameras,” Culpepper explained. “I usually get to one game a year. I never get interviewed because I’m not on the sidelines. I’ll be here and I’ll probably be here more than I have.

“I’ve always been proud of this program from afar sometimes. I’ve always been a great supporter, no matter where I’ve been. I’m just so thankful and proud of the steps forward that UCF has taken and I’m glad to have been a part of it.”

So when former UCF quarterback McKenzie Milton reached out a few months ago about participating in an event for Mission Control, a collective that provides name, image and likeness opportunities for UCF athletes, Culpepper jumped at the chance.

“I didn’t know what it was, but I said I would be there,” he said.

The event drew a sold-out crowd of 150 members. It included a legendary lineup of former UCF football players led by Culpepper and Milton, Blake Bortles , Tre’Quan Smith , Adrian Killins , Aaron Evans and Shaquem and Shaquill Griffin , among others. Current UCF coach Gus Malzahn and athletics director Terry Mohajir attended, too.

Proceeds went to the Otis Anderson Jr. Foundation and Mission Control.

While the UCF football program blossomed since its inception in 1979, former players in attendance played crucial roles.

Bortles guided the Knights to their first American Athletic Conference title and Bowl Championship Subdivision bowl win in the 2013 Fiesta Bowl. Milton led the team to a 13-0 season in 2017, capped with a win over Auburn in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl and a claimed national championship .

But Culpepper started it all by leading UCF into Division I-A play and national relevance.

“I get a lot of credit, but there were a lot of guys that played the game with me that supported myself and helped me do my job,” said Culpepper. “I like to say that I played with a lot of junkyard dogs, and I was one of them. That’s what you had to be during those times.”

Culpepper is eager to see the program take its next step when it joins the Big 12 Conference in 2023.

“I have a tremendous amount of pride,” said Culpepper. “The Big 12 is very prestigious and we deserve it. We’re going to do very well in that conference, and it just shows this program is solid and here to stay. They better watch out because UCF is about to make a lot of noise in their conference.”

With so many great UCF players in one room, the question arose of who is the greatest Knight in attendance?

“I want to be remembered as the guy who played the game tough and smart and played to win,” Culpepper said. “I don’t care about rankings or anything like that.”

For Bortles, there’s no question.

“It’s got to be Daunte,” said Bortles, who finished with 7,598 career passing yards and 56 total touchdowns from 2011-13. “The biggest, the strongest. He was a freak show and I’m sure he can still chuck it.”

Culpepper, meanwhile, defers to Milton.

“He’s a bad man,” Culpepper said. “I didn’t get to see him play very often, but I watched a lot of his games on TV and a lot of film of him. Unfortunately, he had a bad knee injury, but was a great player and quarterback.”

Culpepper appreciates his place in school history.

“It was a great run, it was a great ride,” he said, “but now I’m the biggest cheerleader for UCF.”

T his article first appeared on . Email Matt Murschel at or follow him on Twitter at @osmattmurschel.

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