DAVIE, Fla. – It's clear by the combination of sadness and confusion in Miami Dolphins quarterback Daunte Culpepper's eyes and voice that he's uncomfortable. His life is likely going to change in a significant way and he has very little control of the situation.
This has nothing to do with the fragile state of his right knee, which is still in pain after surgery in December. The pain is great enough pain that he couldn't participate in a non-contact mini-camp last week.
The situation has nothing to do with the fragile state of his job with the Dolphins, which might be taken by Trent Green soon. Miami and the Kansas City Chiefs will likely strike a deal a day or so before the NFL draft next week to allow the 36-year-old Green to be reunited with former coach Cam Cameron.
Culpepper is facing a more traumatic personal situation. Emma Culpepper, the woman who raised him and the only mother he has ever trusted, is in declining health. Emma, who was given Daunte the day he was born, is 92 and has needed serious assistance for more than a year.
Her hands are gnarled like a fried noodle. She doesn't eat much these days. Her hearing is muffled and her speech is mumbled.
"I've never gone through anything like this," Culpepper said.
Over the past two years, Culpepper has been through plenty. There's the knee injury in 2005 that still haunts him. There's the 2006 blow up he had with former coach Nick Saban when Saban had to bench Culpepper when his knee wasn't responding. There's also the 2005 "Love Boat" scandal, involving a Vikings team party, in which Culpepper's name was used like an infield drag. Ultimately, the charges never stuck.
What sticks in Culpepper's soul is his adoptive mother. Emma was 62 when she brought him home. He had been born at the women's prison she worked at in Ocala, Fla., and was the last of 11 children she raised.
Emma was stern and the tiny house where she raised her family on Northwest 7th Street was a crowded place. It was also a place where Culpepper built his dreams. Adjoining the house is a large open lot covered in thick grass. It's Culpepper's first ball field.
"That's where it all started," he said, smiling at his childhood memory. "There was like 25 kids on that field all playing ball all the time. The basketball court was around the back of the house."
Culpepper grew to love Emma and that place so much that when his real mother, Barbara Henderson, got out of prison and came for him, he eventually told Henderson he wanted to go back. When Culpepper made it to the NFL, he moved Emma out of that house to a gated development surrounded by the many Ocala horse farms.
The family room of that home is a shrine to Culpepper, featuring pictures and trophies and other memorabilia from the time he was in youth football all the way to now. Emma spends much of her time sitting in that room watching television quietly.
As meaningful as he is to Emma, she won't leave Ocala, where she has spent her life. Culpepper has offered to move her to his home in South Florida, where he could pay more attention to her.
"She won't do it. She won't leave," he said. Two weeks ago, Culpepper got a call that Emma wasn't doing well. He rushed there to see her. She perked up and started eating again.
But reality is harsh. At some point, Culpepper is going to deal with sad a truth.
"I don't know how I'm going to handle it," he said.
All of this is happening at a time when his career is at a crossroads. The Dolphins don't know whether Culpepper, who has had two major procedures done on his knee by Dr. James Andrews, will return to full health. They also don't know if he really fits into the system that Cameron wants to run, even though it has many similarities to the one that St. Louis Rams coach Scott Linehan employed when Culpepper had great success when Linehan coached in Minnesota.
Cameron has toyed with the idea of keeping both Green and Culpepper, but was told that probably wouldn't be a comfortable situation in the locker room. Culpepper's pride and competitiveness wouldn't allow it, he was told.
Thus, the plan right now is for the Dolphins to get Green and probably take another quarterback in the draft. Most likely, the Dolphins are going to draft one of the four passers – Trent Edwards of Stanford, Drew Stanton of Michigan State, Kevin Kolb of Houston or John Beck of BYU – who have been bundled behind JaMarcus Russell and Brady Quinn.
That could leave Culpepper on the outs very quickly. With a $5.5 million base salary due this season, Culpepper might be an expensive luxury. About the only logical reasons why the Dolphins would keep him is that they gave up a second-round pick in a trade with Minnesota to get him a year ago and he has amazing talent when healthy.
Regardless, Culpepper doesn't seem too worried about the situation. When asked about it last week, he said the only thing he was worried about was getting healthy again.
In that sense, Culpepper is right. Whether it's with the Dolphins or some other team, Culpepper is going to get another chance to play.
The bigger issue for Culpepper right now is what's going to happen to his heart. No one has an answer for that.