VALDOSTA, Ga. — Another shot. That’s what Plant High School’s game against Lowndes was to quarterback Rex Culpepper.
Friday’s out-of-state season opener meant Plant had a chance to begin its season on the right foot, something it failed to do a year ago. But more than that, Culpepper had the opportunity to overwrite his previous performance, earn back the trust he felt he lost the week before in his very first game as a varsity starter.
The Panthers had won their preseason matchup with a nationally ranked Armwood team. But if Culpepper had learned anything after his first unofficial game, it was that winning didn’t mean he’d sail on to the next week scot-free. Not at Plant. Not when you’re Rex Culpepper.
The son and grandson of former University of Florida football team captains, the sport is in his blood. At 6 feet 3, 215 pounds, the 17-year-old junior already has the size some college quarterbacks only dream about. His father’s alma mater wants him. Ohio State wants him. Eleven other Division I schools want him. Still, Culpepper entered his first season as a starter with almost as many offers as pass completions.
“Rex realizes that a lot of what he’s reaping the benefits of right now,” Plant coach Robert Weiner said, “the path has been paved for him.”
On that road, though, failure is not an option.
Next in line at a position that has churned out four college quarterbacks in the past seven years, two of whom play professional football, Culpepper is tasked with carrying on that tradition while adding another trophy to the four-time state champions’ already full case.
And this time, the expectations for Culpepper preceded even the first ounce of results. When he walked into the Vikings’ 12,000-seat stadium Friday night, Culpepper desperately hoped to play catch-up.
After meeting the other captains at midfield, Culpepper trotted back to the sideline where Weiner awaited him. The coach who had witnessed so many other elite-level quarterbacks make their debuts put his arm around his newest pupil for a final pat on the back. It was time.
• • •
Weiner was in the back room of the fieldhouse at Dad’s Stadium talking about the Panthers’ game plan for their upcoming preseason matchup with Armwood when Culpepper poked his head out of the coach’s office.
“Hey, Coach,” Culpepper said. “On the spread, is the tight end the H or is it the tight end?”
Putting in the time to perfect something, though, has never been a problem for Culpepper.
Brad and Monica Culpepper first noticed their son’s attention to detail when he was just a baby. The child to whom they read books in utero stacked his Matchbox cars in perfectly even piles as a toddler. When he was 3 years old, Culpepper would line up his mother’s nail polish bottles by color.
“Brad would come home from work and move one,” Monica Culpepper recalled, “and Rex would know.”
Those qualities only strengthened when he went to school and his competitive side began to show. Culpepper spent six years on the Hillsborough County math bowl team. If there was a science fair, his mother said, he not only had to be in it, but he had to win it.
Culpepper, an Eagle Scout who plays piano or tinkers on a motorcycle at night to unwind, has never earned anything less than an A on his report card. So just like any task he has been challenged with, Culpepper went into his reign as Plant’s quarterback determined to be the best he could be.
During the summer, while most kids enjoyed their time away from school, Culpepper woke before the sun rose to get back to it. Family time at the Culpepper house took place over breakfast at 5:30 a.m. each day before Rex would head to Plant to watch game film, study the playbook and work out.
The dedication paid off. Culpepper, who started his sophomore season weighing 185 pounds, put on 30 more in the weight room. Weiner took him to showcases and camps. The offers began rolling in.
“I remember (the first) was really a big deal,” said Brad Culpepper, who spent nine years in the NFL, six with the Buccaneers. “Then some others started coming in, and it got to be a little bit like, ‘Look, I haven’t even won a game yet. I appreciate all the notoriety …but I’m ready to go earn it on Plant’s field.’ ”
That, though, was still months away. Culpepper put his head down and went back to work.
After good days and bad, Culpepper reflected on his progress. If he got an offer, he’d write about how he felt in his journal. If he had a rough day at practice, he’d write about that, too. It was a way to keep things in perspective.
“The last thing I want to do is … look at the frame instead of the picture,” Culpepper said, “look at this tiny little thing that happened in the course of the whole year.”
• • •
Plant hadn’t even gotten off its first play from scrimmage against Lowndes before the referee threw his yellow flag high in the air. As if a foreshadowing for how long it would take their offense to click that night, the delay-of-game penalty stopped the Panthers in their tracks before they could even get going.
The offense stalled in the first half, and aside from wide receiver Jordan Reed’s 76-yard halfback pass to Derrick Baity for a touchdown, the Panthers moved the ball just 25 yards in two quarters.
Early successes may give rookie quarterbacks a chance to build confidence. But after taking on Tampa Bay giant Armwood — Culpepper had two picks and was sacked twice for a loss of 25 yards — before the five-time Georgia state champions, those momentum-grabbing moments were few and far between.
He finished 5-of-15 for 45 yards against the Vikings, including a 23-yard touchdown pass to Reed in the fourth quarter to tie the score at 14. He had more successes; Culpepper followed his blockers to big gains on a couple quarterback keepers. He was sacked just one time and had one turnover, on which the Vikings were unable to capitalize.
But at the end of the night, only one stat mattered.
After a 20-14 loss to Lowndes, the Panthers were 0-1.
• • •
Had any other rookie quarterback started the way he did, nobody would bat an eye. That wasn’t the case for Culpepper.
In the days that followed Culpepper’s unofficial debut against Armwood, the young quarterback couldn’t avoid the criticism. It was on Twitter. It was in newspaper articles. He caught himself wondering if the results were worth the effort.
“The greatest thing about Rex is, despite what other people say, ‘Why is this kid getting an offer?’ Rex is the one who says, ‘None of that means anything. I just need to go play football for my team,’ ” Weiner said.
So before he let himself stew on those negative thoughts for too long, Culpepper took out his journal, the one he’d so often turned to, and wrote a single sentence.
“Don’t ever let yourself in the moment think it’s not worth it.”
Contact Kelly Parsons at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @_kellyparsons.