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Culpepper is getting used to feeling like a Bear

"I've got no allegiance problems,'' he says as he prepares to face the team that cut him two weeks ago.

By RICK STROUD

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 7, 2000


LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- He walked outside of Halas Hall and squinted into the sun. This is how an old football career is supposed to resume in new surroundings, under a cloudless sky, with a cool breeze in the face. A day of work ending in humility instead of rising humidity.

Brad Culpepper carried a playbook, a brochure on health care benefits and no animosity toward the Buccaneers after finishing practice and team meetings with the Chicago Bears on Wednesday.

"It's nice now, but just wait," he said. "It'll be brutal."

Culpepper was talking about the climate of Chicago in winter, not the snow job everybody believes he received in Tampa Bay.

It has been more than two weeks since the Bucs released the popular nose tackle, a move welcomed by players and fans like an infection. Since then, Culpepper has had a lot of time to sort out his feelings about the divorce from the Bucs and how he will feel returning to Raymond James Stadium on Sunday on the visitor's sideline.

"It's a strange feeling," Culpepper said. "But I'm already feeling like I'm a Chicago Bear. I've got no allegiance problems.

"I've done this before, when I was with Minnesota and I went to Tampa (on a waiver claim in 1994). I remember trying so hard to just show them up. ... I kind of got caught in all that hype. ... It's so hard not to because everybody wants to know about it. And I played with those guys for so long, I want to prove I've still got it. But again, you can't get out of your game.

"It's easier said than done, but I'm old enough and a veteran enough that I should be able to handle that."

Culpepper participated in about 15 plays in the Bears' loss at Minnesota last weekend, making no tackles. Sunday, he is expected to play more backing up starters Jim Flanigan and Mike Wells.

It's a reserve role he says he might have willingly accepted with the Bucs had they given him a choice.

"I had created a feeling amongst my peers that they couldn't see me running scout team, which I do here now," Culpepper said. "But I could've done that. I've always been a player who does whatever it takes. But ... I would've said, "You can start (someone else) and play him all you want, but he better be playing as good or better than I am.' That would've been my only stipulation."

Instead, Culpepper was released without warning, going from starter to free agent Aug. 21. Though he disagreed with the decision, it is no longer a focus.

How can it be? Culpepper has a new job to learn, a new number (76), new teammates and a new playbook. Meanwhile, his wife, Monica, handled most of the arrangements necessary to uproot their lives after six years in Tampa.

"These past two weeks have just been s---," Culpepper said. "My wife has been put through the wringer as much or more than me. She had to move an entire household up here by herself while she was raising a 3-year-old and a 10-month-old. ... It's been very difficult on us both and gives us appreciation for what we have with each other."

What still surprises Culpepper is the outpouring of appreciation he received from players and fans after his release.

"Secondhand I heard a lot from Monica and from my parents, from guys on the team. And that's special," he said. "It doesn't take away from the fact that I'm no longer there. So that's still a disappointment. But ... it makes me happy that I had an effect on the community for the six years I was there. And I probably will make Tampa my home when I'm done."

No matter how much Culpepper tries to hide the hurt of being released, it is never far from the surface.

Bears defensive line coach Rex Norris, who coached Culpepper at Florida and for whom Culpepper named his first son, said he thinks Culpepper is still hurt.

"(But) I think he realizes what happens in this league, too," Norris said. "There's lots of reasons sometimes. ... I'm thankful he's down here trying to help us (try to make the Super Bowl)."

Culpepper is the Bears' resident expert on his former team, a valuable resource for the coaching staff in preparation for Sunday's game. He knows what formations the Bucs are most vulnerable to as well as some signals. After practice Wednesday, he remained on the field for several minutes to impart some secrets to offensive coordinator Gary Crowton and offensive line coach Bob Wylie.

But espionage rarely wins football games.

"It's certainly part of the game," Bears coach Dick Jauron said. "He's a member of your team, and you say, "Is there any information you have that you think will help us?' The information is good, but I don't know what you do with a lot of it."

Culpepper agreed. "Everybody thinks you can get plays or whatever. The Bucs are fairly vanilla. I mean, what you see on film is what you get," he said. "There's really no secrets out there."

The most common question Culpepper is asked is how will he feel if Tampa Bay makes it to the Super Bowl in Tampa.

"But you know, maybe I was part of the best part of that team," he said. "Getting back to the NFC Championship Game is not an easy thing to do."

Shortly after signing with Chicago two days after being cut, Culpepper said the Bears were the NFC Central team that most concerned Tampa Bay. That might seem preposterous considering the Bucs did not allow Chicago to score a touchdown last season, holding it to nine total points.

"It comes from the (Bears') offensive style," Culpepper said. "I mean, we really spread the field out, and Cade McNown can beat you with his arms and beat you with his legs. It really makes our defensive coaches nervous."

Our coaches?

Culpepper frequently catches himself lapsing in his references to his current team and former team.

In some ways, it's as if he has never left Tampa Bay. The Bucs keep a seat vacant for Culpepper in the defensive meeting room at One Buc Place and on the bench at RJS.

"I didn't know that, and I'm honored that they do. But they need to fill it up," he said. "I'm gone. I appreciate it. But we've all got to move on."

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