UCF star Daunte Culpepper becomes ‘greatest cheerleader’

As Daunte Culpepper walked through the lobby of the Celeste Hotel on Friday night, he was greeted by enthusiastic UCF supporters waiting for an autograph, posing for a selfie or just wanting to shake his hand.

At 6ft 4, Culpepper stands out as a gentle giant who pauses to share his time.

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

It’s been more than two decades since Culpepper burst onto the college football scene and displayed exceptional athleticism for a quarterback. He grew into his role and showed the composure and leadership needed when the Knights transitioned to a Division IA football program in 1996.

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

But over the years, Culpepper has been just as adept at avoiding the limelight as he was at avoiding defenders.

“I’ve been here a lot more times than people think, just never on camera,” Culpepper explained. “I usually come 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 times than I have.

“I’ve always been proud of this program, sometimes remotely. I’ve always been a big supporter no matter where I’ve been. I’m just so grateful and proud of the progress UCF has made and glad to have been a part of it.”

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

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

The event attracted a sell-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 also attended.

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

While the UCF football program has thrived since its inception in 1979, the ex-players in attendance have played a crucial role.

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

But Culpepper started it all by leading UCF into the Division IA game and national relevance.

“I get a lot of credit, but there were a lot of people who played the game with me who supported me and helped me get my job done,” Culpepper said. “I like to say I’ve played with a lot of junkyard dogs and I was one of them. You had to be that in these times.”

Culpepper is excited for the program to take its next step when it competes in the Big 12 Conference in 2023.

“I’m very proud,” Culpepper said. “The Big 12 is very prestigious and we deserve it. We’re going to do very well at this conference and it just goes to show that this program is solid and staying put. You had better watch out because UCF will be making a lot of noise in their conference.”

With so many great UCF players in one room, who is the greatest knight in attendance?

“I want to be remembered as the guy who played the game hard and smart and played to win,” Culpepper said. “I’m not interested in ranks or anything like that.”

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No question for Bortles.

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

Meanwhile, Culpepper gives in to Milton.

“He’s a bad man,” Culpepper said. “I haven’t seen him play very often, but I’ve seen a lot of his games on TV and a lot of his films. Unfortunately he had a bad knee injury but was a great player and quarterback.”

Culpepper appreciates his place in school history.

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

This article first appeared on OrlandoSentinel.com. Email Matt Murschel [email protected] or follow him on Twitter at @osmattmurschel.

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