Tooth or no tooth, Honor Culpepper brings leadership and grit to the court
Honor Culpepper put her right hand over her lips, only to discover blood -- lots of it.
She was playing in an AAU game last year in Atlanta, and the player Culpepper was guarding had extended an elbow while driving for a layup.
Culpepper ran to the bathroom to survey the damage.
"My [bottom front] tooth was cracked and hanging by a thread," said Culpepper, a 5-foot-8 rising junior point guard at Plant (Tampa, Florida). "My mom was freaking out. She wanted us to go home immediately to get to an oral surgeon. I just shoved my tooth back in and told the coach I wanted to keep playing."
Culpepper returned for the second half, scoring eight points post-injury while leading the Tampa Thunder to a comeback victory.
A year later, Culpepper, now 16, has yet to get a permanent tooth to replace the cracked one -- not that it bothers her in the slightest.
"For a little while, I had a retainer," she said. "I would take it off sometimes and play without my front tooth. I wasn't embarrassed at all. I was hoping it would scare my opponents so that they wouldn't guard me."
Culpepper -- the youngest of three siblings -- is merely keeping up with a family full of hard-core people. Her parents, Brad and Monica, have each been finalists on the reality TV show "Survivor," and her two brothers, Rex and Judge, play Division I football.
Brad was an All-American defensive tackle at the University of Florida and played nine years in the NFL. Rex, 20, is a 6-foot-3, 220-pound sophomore quarterback at Syracuse. Judge, 18, is a 6-foot-4, 275-pound freshman defensive tackle at Penn State.
But Honor, who led her 26-2 Plant team in scoring as a sophomore by averaging 15.4 points, has her own athletic credentials.
"Everyone at our high school always wants to talk about what incredible athletes Rex and Judge are," said Carrie Mahon, Plant's girls' basketball coach. "But I've always said Honor is the best athlete in the family. I will take that fight up with anyone."
Rough and tumble
The athletic genes run deep in the Culpepper family. Honor's grandfather, Bruce Culpepper, played center at the University of Florida and was a co-captain for the 1962 Gator Bowl team. Her uncle, Blair Culpepper, also played football at Florida, as a fullback.
That legacy has not been lost on Honor. Growing up, she competed in every sport or adventure activity her brothers participated in, from baseball and football to racing dirt bikes, gigging stingrays, snowboarding in Iceland and hiking at Yellowstone National Park.
"Now she embraces being a lovely young woman," Monica said. "But from age 2 to 4, she wore camouflage shirts every day. She loved her dad and her brothers so much that when she said grace at dinner she prayed that the next day she would wake up a boy."
When Honor was in first grade, her mom took her to one of Mahon's camps. The minimum age for the camp is normally third grade, but Honor showed up anyway, wearing a headband that covered her eyebrows, a muscle shirt and baggy shorts.
When Mahon voiced her concerns about Honor's age, Monica paid the $100 weekly fee in cash and told the coach to keep the money as a donation if Honor couldn't cut it on the court.
"Monica said she would wait in her truck for an hour, and if I didn't come out with Honor, she would assume she was good enough to play in the camp," Mahon said. "Five minutes later, I went out and waved at Monica and told her she could leave."
Honor was fitting in just fine.
"She was crossing over my seventh-graders," Mahon said. "She was confident and driven, just like she is today. I've never seen a kid as competitive in any sport, either gender."
Honor, a straight-A student and a self-described "math geek" is interested in studying communications in college. Although she doesn't have any scholarship offers yet, the Ivy League could be an ideal fit.
Rob Walker, the program director for the Tampa Thunder, said Honor has a lot to offer a college team.
"She won't win any Olympic sprint medals, but she is a physical player for her position, and the light switch is always on for her," Walker said. "During our tryouts, she was diving all over the place like it was a state final."
Besides her hustle, intelligence and passion for basketball, Culpepper needed something tangible to catch fire with college scouts, which is why she has worked tirelessly on her shooting. Her parents also got her a private ballhandling coach.
Unlike many other kids, Walker said, Culpepper is "straight business" when she enters a gym.
"As coaches, we are always telling kids to put their cell phones away, but Honor is already there," Walker said. "She walks in like she's going to battle. She has already figured out the standings in the tournament. She has read the rules. She's ready."
Honor -- whose birth name was selected by Brad after Honor Blackman, the actress who starred in the 1964 James Bond film "Goldfinger" -- was the first player off the bench on the Plant team her freshman year.
This past season, she became a team leader, and that was never more evident than in Plant's 62-56 loss to eventual state champion Winter Haven in the regional semifinals.
Shortly after the game, Mahon and her coaching staff stopped just short of entering their locker room when they heard Honor addressing the team.
"She was thanking the seniors for the effort they gave, and she was saying that this is not going to end this way next year," Mahon said. "All the coaches just froze. Whatever she was saying, we wanted her to finish.
"As a coach, that's what you want: someone who is strong-willed speaking for the team."
Less than a month after Honor delivered that speech, she was jolted by the news that her brother Rex had been diagnosed with testicular cancer. He underwent surgery on March 19 and then did 100 hours of chemotherapy. Rex says he is now cancer-free.
"It hit me pretty hard," Honor said. "Rex is the healthiest kid I know. He doesn't eat any fat. He drinks protein shakes. I couldn't believe this could happen to someone so young and strong.
"It scared me. Rex is like Superman to me, and I didn't want to see him go through any pain."
Rex, reached by phone as he was driving up to Syracuse to return to school, said Honor helped his fight.
"I know Honor was scared," Rex said. "But she's the first one to make jokes. She's not the type to wallow in sorrow. She would be sarcastic to lift me up."
That dark humor was a sign of the return to normalcy for the Culpepper kids, who have always treated each other as siblings, as opposed to having any assigned gender roles.
"There was never a drop-off between Judge and Honor," Rex said. "I treated them the same, and Honor really has great hands catching a football."
That might be, but Honor's heart is elsewhere.
"I want to play college basketball," Honor said. "Anyone who is interested in me, I would be interested in them."