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He's ever the great defender

Once a star defensive tackle for the Gators and the Bucs, Brad Culpepper now battles in court for his injured clients.

Published June 17, 2003

[Times photo: Kathleen Flynn]
Brad Culpepper the lawyer, working in his office at Morgan, Colling & Gilbert in Tampa.

[Times photo (2000): Toni L. Sandys ]
Brad Culpepper watches from the sidelines during a preseason game the day before he was cut by the Bucs.

TAMPA - The first thing you notice is the weight. Or rather, the lack of it.

Brad Culpepper's burly, 280-pound presence from his Tampa Bay Buccaneer past has vanished. Since retiring from football in 2001, he has trimmed 75 pounds from his 6-foot-1 frame and traded his pads for a three-piece suit.

The new, svelte Culpepper (old waist size 40, new one 32) has gone from tackling ball carriers to tackling legal cases. He's traded one hard-nosed profession for another: putting his pugnacious work style to use in a form of law that thrives on it.

At 34, he's a rookie member of the team with Morgan, Colling & Gilbert in Tampa, a large statewide firm handling personal injury, medical malpractice, nursing home abuse and workers' comp. (The one with attorney John Morgan in omnipresent "For the People" ads on TV and on the back of phone books).

That Culpepper wound up in law is no surprise. His father, Bruce Culpepper, and brother, Bruce, are corporate lawyers in the Tallahassee law firm of Ackerman Senterfitt. His sister, Blair, practices corporate/property law for Macfarlane Ferguson & McMullen. And her husband, Brett Kurland, works with Culpepper at Morgan, Colling & Gilbert.

Culpepper, who still ranks fourth on the Bucs' all-time sack list with 34, was a popular player whose release after the 1999-2000 season stunned many fans and teammates - not to mention Culpepper.

But he had begun laying the groundwork for his new career back in 1996, taking 15 hours of law school each spring at the University of Florida.

Culpepper had earned his bachelor's degree in history while becoming an All-America lineman and senior captain for the Gators - one of the few UF players ever to receive SEC all-academic honors in all four seasons.

He later got a master's degree in sports administration, and completed his law degree after finishing his career with the Chicago Bears in 2001.

These days, Culpepper has his hands full: 300-plus cases in presuit and another 25 in litigation. When he's not on the job, or helping launch a new fantasy sports camp business, Culpepper spends time with wife, Monica, their sons Rex, 5, and Judge, 3, and daughter Honor, 1, on Davis Island.

Culpepper spoke recently with the St. Petersburg Times about stepping from the football field to the legal arena.

Times: Was it hard making a transition out of football?

Culpepper: The toughest thing for athletes to do once they're done with football is transition into the real world. In athletics, every day is filled with structured things. You wake up. You go to meetings. You watch films. You work out. You run on the field. But when that structure is eliminated, you find yourself kind of lost, kind of reaching for something.

You see a lot of (retired) guys, when their biggest choice is whether they watch Oprah or The View, you can really drive yourself crazy or your wife and family crazy. So if you can fill that void with something structured, it makes the transition much easier. Fortunately, I moved into something I really enjoy. I'm jammed right now and I love it. I dove in head first, and it's been financially rewarding. So that's a plus when you can continue to make money and have structure, too.

Times: Not every ballplayer is so fortunate.

Culpepper: Everything is so front-loaded with a pro players' career. They make so much money. If you save it and live within your means, you're fine. So many guys make a lot and spend a lot. I was never that extravagant as a ballplayer. And I thought about my future and got a law degree.

As a football player, I was a 10th-round pick. As an attorney, I was maybe one of the top five picks in the draft coming out of the Florida law school. I had some opportunities with Seattle and the Jets and a few other teams to keep playing. But I had my law degree and talked to some firms around here. After talking to John (Morgan), it was the place I wanted to go.

Times: How would you describe your branch of law?

Culpepper: Plaintiffs work can be very combative. You've got one side arguing that there's been no negligence. And our stand is just the polar opposite. You're basically banging it out.

Times: So it requires the same traits as a nose tackle?

Culpepper: It does. In terms of confidence, experience, intelligence and skill. That's all the same kind of thing. You want to incorporate that as a lawyer, much like you want to as a football player.

Times: You enjoy the mano-a-mano dynamic?

Culpepper: It takes a different personality to be a plaintiff attorney. I've been doing this kind of arguing my whole life - 40 guys in the locker room will attest to it. Now I get paid for it. How great is this?

The ultimate push is, "I'll see you in trial." We'll take it all the way and they'll say, "We're not paying a dime more than this. And if you think you can get more, then take it the distance, pal." It's really fun to say, "Okay, fine." And we're financially secure enough to do that.

Times: An NFL lineman at 34 is old. But you're a kid in this new game, right?

Culpepper: Correct. But I take my lumps, and I liken it to starting as a rookie in the NFL. It's not like I'm riding on the bench and watching somebody else. Which happens to most guys. But I have a little bit of experience. I've been a player representative for teams. I've done a lot of negotiating of contracts and everything else. I'm not intimidated by many people. You go against some attorneys and it's kind of like going one-on-one with Randall McDaniel, but you just tighten your belt and give it your best shot. You take your lumps and come out a smarter man.

Times: You were known for playing smart, always anticipating. Is that your game as a lawyer?

Culpepper: In the legal field, you've got to have some intelligence. You've got to have some background as far as education goes. But you've also got to be smart, not just work hard. And one of the things I really enjoy about this field is that we work smart. A lot of attorneys are paid by the hour, regardless of an outcome. Our firm works on a contingency basis. You reap the rewards you earn. If you don't work smart, you don't get paid.

Plus, if I need to take an afternoon off to spend time with the kids, I'm able to do that, because I'm not nailed down to an hourly wage. I can come back later when they go to bed or come in early.

Times: Your father, brother and sister are in corporate law. Why didn't you go in that direction?

Culpepper: Corporate law is so intangible. There are people who love it and thrive on it. Obviously, I don't want to discount it. Maybe I'm not smart enough for that. Everybody else in my family does it. However, I like what I do here. There's a lot of satisfaction in seeing someone who's below the Mendoza line being compensated, as opposed to doing something that's saving a big CEO money.

Times: Were you reluctant at all about getting into personal injury law?

Culpepper: At first, when I was looking at it, you tend to think, ambulance chaser and the advertising that you do, but the truth of it is, it's the 21st century, and it's the medium with which you can utilize your name. And we don't chase a single ambulance. . . .

The more I do it, the more I realize, it's the only way for me to practice law. I think we wear the white hat. Everybody kind of makes fun of it, but the bottom line is we represent people who get injured . . . I don't apologize for anything I do now that I'm in this business. And while I'm quick to make a joke about myself or anyone else, I'm very proud of what we do.

Times: Do you miss playing at all?

Culpepper: When people ask me if I miss playing football, I say, "Not really," because I'm so occupied with No. 1, my family, and this law profession, that I don't have time to sit here and dwell on it.

Times: What are your most distinct Buc memories?

Culpepper: How we turned around a really bad team into a really good one. I saw both sides of it. I played for the Vikings my first two seasons, and there was quite a bit of camaraderie. I was young and more an an observer there than a leader. But down here, when we started 1-8 under (Tony) Dungy, I took the attitude that we need to get together and have some beers and relax. Life's too short to be miserable, because it really was miserable. And I think things started turning around and a camaraderie developed. It was one step in the turnaround. I took great pride being part of it.

Times: There was also the harsh memory of getting cut after that great '99 season, when you came within a game of the Super Bowl.

Culpepper: When it happened, I was totally shocked. But I wanted to leave with class, knowing that I would be back in Tampa one day. And probably back with a law degree, hanging my shingle out. (Booger) McFarland is a good player. It's just the nature of the business. But we had a great defense in '99. Did they get rid of me too soon? Probably. Maybe a year or two early, because I don't know that he was ready to play. But he is now, and obviously good enough to win the Super Bowl.

Times: You're sort of McFarland's boss now, right?

Culpepper: We're partners actually. I've helped start a new company called Sports Revenue Enterprises. It's the brainchild of a local businessman named Bart Nolde and myself. We brought in some investors like Booger, (Bucs quarterback) Brad Johnson and (area businessman) Joel Blumberg. It's like a pro fantasy camp weekend, but we're doing it at the college level.

Alumni or boosters pay to take part, and they interact - practice, break down films, get VIP treatment - with 15-25 former stars from that school for the weekend. We're doing our first ones at LSU and Central Michigan. And we're getting lots of interest from other universities. We're also doing something similar, a Playing With the Pros weekend, this spring in Tampa that will involve baseball and football, and maybe basketball and golf.

Times: Do you have time for anything else?

Culpepper: Well, I just finished my first season over here helping coach in Bayshore Little League. My 5-year-old, Rex, started out in T-ball. That occupied quite a bit of my time. The kids are into music, too. I took piano lessons for eight years, and they're doing piano and guitar and art. Monica is the one who's really working hard. She's a stay-at-home mom, and make no mistake - what she does is a lot more important than what I do. She puts 100 percent into these kids every day.

Times: How'd you lose all that weight so fast?

Culpepper: I just burned more than I consumed. I run a lot. I turned into a bit of a health nut and I lost about 10 pounds a month for eight months. I ate smaller meals, and I wouldn't eat after dinner. I think half of my severance went to getting new clothes.

Times: How do you want to be remembered as a Buc?

Culpepper: Effective. Bottom line: week in, week out, I got my job done. I was able to be a rock. I was a workhorse, not a show horse. And I was somewhat relentless. Maybe because of that, I got 10 more sacks in my career. I loved the game and gave it everything I had. I have zero regrets. I left on my own terms. I gave a ton of my life to the game, and now I'm ready to give a ton to being the best lawyer I can be.

[Last modified June 16, 2003, 10:38:03]

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