Rags to riches stories in sports aren't difficult to come by. Although Andre Culpepper's story doesn't quite fit that mold, it is every bit as compelling as those recorded in numerous memoirs and movies.
One of the stars of the Thomson 2002 state championship team's defensive line, Culpepper was a force on the high school gridiron. But his 5-6, 228 lb. frame didn't offer him many options in the college ranks.
Originally a walk-on at Division II University of West Georgia, the coaching staff eventually came to the conclusion that they couldn't afford to keep him off the field.
"He came in here as too short, too light, too small to play college football and just established himself right off the bat as a walk-on true freshman," said West Georgia Head Coach Mike Ledford. "...He was down on the scout team with us. I work on the offensive side of the football, and we couldn't block him. So I just told the defensive coordinator 'You need to take a look at this guy.'"
Culpepper worked his way into the starting lineup during a few games of his sophomore season with the Wolves. He became a go-to defensive lineman during his junior season and was named to the Second Team All Gulf South Conference after this past season, his senior campaign.
"You always want to try to out-recruit him because you want that nice big 6-3, 290 lb. mammoth of a defensive lineman who's just going to kill everybody, but we just couldn't keep him off the field," Coach Ledford said. "No matter who we recruited, he was always able to play as well or better than anybody."
Even after missing a game and a half with an ankle injury, he recorded 28 total tackles, nine of which were for a loss. That total included 4.5 sacks for a total of 34 yards lost. Culpepper also contributed one quarterback hurry, and a fumble recovery.
But it was his work on special teams that truly proved invaluable to the Wolves. Culpepper blocked three field goals during the 2006 season. Even though the team ended with a 1-9 season, Culpepper is glad he could contribute.
"It's just like a dream to me to play football," he said. "I've been wanting to do it since I was little, so to get the opportunity to play after high school is just a real blessing to me. ...Looking in the mirror, I feel like I did all I could do to help my team win."
His coaches definitely agree with that statement.
"Andre Culpepper is one of those unique young men that fulfilled his potential as an athlete and probably even exceeded it," Coach Ledford said. "That came from hard work and a great attitude."
Coach Ledford added that Culpepper will be able to succeed in anything he tries in life. For now, that will be working toward a tryout with arena football or possibly an NFL team. In the meantime, he will graduate with a degree in chemistry and hope to work in police forensics if football doesn't pan out.
The continuation of his football career after high school certainly panned out. It worked so well that Culpepper began mentoring younger defensive linemen twice his size, the ones in trouble on and off the field.
Coach Ledford said that attribute is a rare find, but it's one he's not surprised about, given Culpepper's high school background. Late practices and Friday nights spent in The Brickyard had a lot to do with his success in college, Culpepper said.
"Coach Welsh really motivated a lot of us during my senior year in '02 to continue to do something positive with our lives. So to see a lot of us - I think there's like seven or eight of us off that team in college right now - doing something with our lives makes Thomson really proud," he said.
After watching another former Thomson player - Chris Thigpen - graduate from his West Georgia team last year, Coach Ledford agreed.
"From our perspective, the young men that they have produced from Thomson have come out and excelled in everything that they do," he said.
But more than anything, Culpepper said his faith helped him achieve success.
"I know I wanted to play football, but I didn't have anywhere to go. Nobody was really looking at me. I knew a lot of people were doubting me," he said. "I really just started praying and believing I could do it, believing God would help me. That's the only reason I feel like I'm at West Georgia, because of God. So everything I did on the football field I attribute to Him."