Brad Culpepper sat in his Tampa high-rise office, water view gleaming behind him. He wore a short-sleeved shirt that showed off a striking bicep injury, torn from years on the football field.
Culpepper, 48, already had fame and money. The scion of a prominent Florida legal family, he was a key member of the storied late-'90s Tampa Bay Buccaneers defense. Now a lawyer, he stars in stylish TV ads with his brother-in-law striding in slow motion up courthouse steps.
But one thing on his resume has eluded him. A win on the CBS reality show Survivor. And one thing irks him even more than losing — being cast as a villain.
"Perception is actually reality," he said. "Maybe in real life, but absolutely on Survivor. Whatever someone's perception of you, that's how you are. That's what you are."
So, when producers asked Culpepper back to play another game of mental and physical endurance on a remote island, he agreed. He talked about the show Monday, which airs Wednesday and has three weeks left. So far, he has survived.
In this season's Survivor: Game Changers, Culpepper is doing much better than when he played in the Blood vs. Water season in 2013 with his wife, Monica. The show is getting solid ratings and he is picking up fans, many of whom say he's in a story arc they call the "winners's edit" that could take him to the final three.
It was baffling to him the first time that he was cast as a bully who disrespected women, he said.
"I was not disliked on my tribe," he said. "Everybody I was on the beach with liked me. ... I wanted to go back to be able to play the game normally. Playing with my wife was impossible and no one seemed to understand."
He endured new rules on Blood vs. Water that had never been tried before on the show. His actions on one team could affect his wife on the other team. Evicted players had a chance to compete and come back, which fostered animosity.
He was voted out after only four weeks. Ousted tribe members famously flicked him off and cursed him out. Monica went to the end, losing out in the final vote.
This season, Culpepper has been shown handing out praise, volunteering to skip a feast so his tribe could eat. He competes athletically during physical challenges. He teared up in front of other players, saying he didn't appreciate how hard it must have been for Monica to have survived for 39 days.
"Brad is, to me, the most genuine person that I've met out here," contestant Aubry Bracco said to the camera after that confession.
"If I had to make an educated guess right now, I would say the game is going to come down to Brad or Sarah (Lacina), and one of them is clearly the decoy and the other the winner," Martin Holmes of the Inside Survivor blog wrote in a regular feature that analyzes each player's edit. Longtime fans predict what's coming by mapping characters to their storyline.
Hardcore fans say police officer Lacina is getting a winner's edit. Producers in recent years have planted seeds throughout the season to illustrate why a winner succeeded, explained Survivor columnist Mario Lanza.
"They show Sarah commenting on scenes she had nothing to do with," Lanza said. "And that's a huge red flag."
Lanza's website, The Funny 115, counts down the funniest moments in Survivor history. He recently posted a detailed defense of Culpepper.
"Brad Culpepper was one of the most hated players on Survivor in recent seasons, and I just didn't think it was fair," Lanza said. It was always an ejected player who was responsible for the Culpepper hate, he said, accusing him of things like demeaning women.
"Try to point out one time where he actually said or did anything that was actually mean to someone," Lanza said. "You can't do it. That footage doesn't exist. All you will find is Brad going out of his way, over and over, to be a good sport and to try to be nice to people."
Back in Tampa this week, Culpepper agreed.
"I'm edited differently," this time, he said. "I'm playing exactly the same."
The former Eagle Scout caught fish, tended the fire and worked hard for his team. He lived on a diet of coconuts, fish, crabs and snails in Fiji, on the same island that was the backdrop for the Tom Hanks movie Castaway.
He created an elaborate sleeping nook for his body wracked by injuries from the NFL. At night, he would go down to the beach and dig a pit for his rear end, put his feet up on a crate and use a burlap sack full of leaves as a makeshift pillow to get some relief on his side.
"Sleeping was more difficult than lack of eating for me," he said.
While he can't reveal the show's outcome, getting to this week's episode was a big win for Culpepper. He'll reunite on air with Monica when loved ones pay a visit.
The couple celebrate their 25th anniversary Tuesday, the day before the episode airs.
"It's almost like if I do something in my life and she's not involved," he said, "it hasn't happened."
Contact Sharon Kennedy Wynne at [email protected] Follow @SharonKWn.