- LZ Granderson, Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
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The quarterback many thought we would be talking about this Super Bowl was not Peyton Manning.
It was the local guy.
The one who was born and raised in Florida. The three-sport athlete at Vanguard High in Ocala and record-breaker at Central Florida. The one who was returned home to play for the Dolphins to lead team to some serious homefield advantage for the big game. This moment was supposed to be Daunte Culpepper's, but it's not.
"It would have been nice," the three-time All Pro said with a smile. "But it didn't turn out that way, so I've already put this year behind me and now I'm focused on next year."
The storybook season that could have been made way for one all to familiar for Dolphins fans -- poor offense, coaching changes, missed playoffs. But Culpepper, who ended his second consecutive season early because of injury, said being on the outside looking in only makes him hungrier.
"When I look at what a team like New Orleans was able to do, and I look at all the parity in the league, I get excited because I know we have the pieces to make some noise," he said.
It seems Miami agrees. The good-natured star spent hours this week taking photos with fans and signing autographs as he visited Miami's top-rated radio show, The Big Lip Bandit Morning Show, before swinging by the greasy spoon, Sonny's Triangle Restaraunt, with his best friend Tuck and comedian Benji Brown.
"I know that's not part of the training diet," Brown joked, as Culpepper scooped up a heaping spoonful of hominy grits swimming in butter. "If it is, then I need to go into the NFL."
"Well, you know, it's good to take a break every now and then," Culpepper said.
To understand the 30-year-old star, all you have to do is look at the company he keeps. Tuck, who went to daycare with Culpepper growing up, helps keep him level-headed while Brown, a friend since he was drafted in 1999, keeps him in stitches.
He needed both after a rocky start in Miami.
Culpepper, coming back from major knee surgery the season before, was slow to recover and was done for the year after a 1-3 start. In November, he had loose cartilage removed and said he has been working out feverishly to make sure 2007 has a better ending.
"When you're winning, you're the best thing ever and when you're losing you're the worst ever," Culpepper said. "You have to learn how to not to sway as a player because that can be frustrating."
Tucker said that ability to stay balanced is a lifelong trait of Culpepper's.
"The thing about Daunte is that he just stays the same no matter what happens," Tuck said. "He understands that there will be good times and bad, so he doesn't let his emotions go all over the place. When the fans were getting on him because the team wasn't winning, he didn't want to kill himself or nothing. He just stayed focus on what needed to be done to turn things around."
LZ Granderson is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and host of the ESPN360 talk show "Game Night." LZ can be reached at email@example.com.
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