Born on Aug. 17, 1988 in Philadelphia, Chris Culliver Jr. was an energetic kid, one who was always looking for pickup basketball and football games in the neighborhood. His love for football, however, didn’t quite develop in Philadelphia, but rather picked up once he moved into his father, Chris Culliver Sr.’s, home in Raleigh, N.C. As a high school sophomore, Junior began to play football at Garner Magnet High School in Garner, N.C. and soon after, he grew into an even larger-than-life personality.
Meet: “Cully in the House.”
Tired of being referred to as “Culliver,” the athletic youngster adopted a more suiting personality, one that sticks with him to do this very day as a member of the 10-3 San Francisco 49ers. “‘Cully in the house’ is something I started saying in high school. People used to call me, ‘Culliver’ and then they started saying, ‘Cully,’” says the now 23-year-old defensive back who’s totaled 26 tackles, seven pass breakups and one interception through 13 games of his NFL career. “So I was just playing around like, ‘Cully in the house!’ For everything, I would be saying it. My Twitter name is even @Cullyinthehouse.”
The moniker allowed Culliver to freely express himself on the field and gain confidence as one of the best defensive backs in the state of North Carolina. Culliver was rated as a five-star recruit and was offered a scholarship to the University of South Carolina to play wide receiver. “I didn’t play a lot of defense,” explains Culliver, “but when you’re in high school, you think you can play everything.”
In college, the Gamecocks preferred Culliver as a defensive back. After all, not many defensive backs stand 6-foot, 199 pounds and can run a 4.3, 40-yard dash. With those unique talents, South Carolina placed Culliver in the defensive backfield only to see the outgoing player become one of the best performers in the prestigious Southeastern Conference. Culliver started 32 games for the Gamecocks, including seven as a cornerback. Primarily used as a safety and special teams contributor, Culliver finished his career with the third-most kickoff return yards (2,476) in SEC history.
Culliver enjoyed his versatile role. “I felt like I could do it all,” he says looking back on how he was used in college. Culliver mostly enjoyed laying vicious hits on the opponent like one of his idols, late Washington Redskins defensive back Sean Taylor used to do. “I definitely loved playing the slot player as a safety and we’re playing cover-one (defense),” says Culliver. “I definitely liked to come down hitting like S.T.”
With a budding reputation as one of the best athletes in one of the nation’s most competitive conferences, Culliver assumed he would be stepping into the house of an NFL organization rather soon. It just turned out to be a longer wait than expected.
Culliver met his closest friend on the 49ers at the 2011 NFL Scouting Combine. He just didn’t know it until he reached San Francisco.
In Indianapolis, the South Carolina defensive back was intent on impressing NFL decision-makers while improving his stock coming off an injury-plagued senior year, one where he only played in seven games. In his mind, Culliver felt like a first-round pick; he just had to prove it. He especially felt that way after running a 4.36, 40, despite cramping up before his time to run.
Culliver had to keep a positive mindset throughout the draft process. “I kind of fell off the map and pretty much had to work my way up,” he says. “I had to just to keep grinding.” After demonstrating his speed and impressive ball skills, Culliver began to climb draft rankings, even San Francisco’s draft board.
While Culliver was headed to meet with an East Coast team, he ended up calling on audible on his plans. He visited with the 49ers instead. “It kind of caught me off guard,” recalls Culliver. “When they called me, I was getting back on the map and people were noticing me. I was flying to different states to meet teams. It was crazy.”
Culliver loved the Bay Area when he visited, but wasn’t sure if he’d be back permanently. Sure enough, the 49ers brought him back for good as the No. 80 overall pick. Despite being away from the team during the league’s offseason work stoppage, Culliver quickly built bonds with his rookie teammates.
“Aldon, that’s my boy,” says Culliver, “even on the road trips. We just hang out and talk. We talk about life, talk about the defense and things like that. I think that’s probably why we’re having a good season, just having fun and communicating to each other. I’m glad to be in this situation with him.”
It’s not just Culliver being depended on by the veterans inside the locker room. Smith, too, is one of many NFL newcomers having to carry his weight on an NFC West-winning squad. “We definitely bond,” adds Culliver. “We just feed off each other’s energy.”
Smith sees his rookie defensive cohort in a similar way. “Cully, he’s special,” says Smith, the rookie linebacker with 10.5 sacks. “He has a great personality, knows how to make you laugh. Crazy athletic and he’s just good people, one of my closest friends.”
The friendship extends beyond working hours. Both players, who room together on the road, make sure they give the other support. They might talk about the daily occurrences from practice or an upcoming game plan, but most conversations center on the duo’s quest to be great.
“We’re both young,” says the 22-year-old Smith, “Being rookies, I guess it’s just really apparent how we act. We made it clear we’re young, but we still know how to work. We still know how to take care of business.”
Against the Seattle Seahawks on Sept. 11, Culliver made his NFL debut, recording one special teams tackle in a 49ers win. Since that strong start, Culliver has progressed into his current role as the team’s third defensive back. With most teams in the league utilizing multiple receiver sets, Culliver’s spot has become one of the most stressed positions on the football field.
However, lining up across from the game’s best receivers isn’t anything new to Culliver. Coming from the SEC, he matched up with first-round picks A.J. Green and Julio Jones, who’ve been major contributors on their respective teams. Those meetings helped breed confidence in the young defensive back. “There’s no question when you make the transition and you’re from a top-level program and you drew tough assignments in college,” says 49ers defensive back coach Ed Donatell, “it does help you transition. It’s true in his situation.”
So while other cornerbacks might be caught up in covering some of the game’s top receivers like Philadelphia Eagles wideout DeSean Jackson ot Detroit Lions wideout Calvin Johnson, Culliver treats it like competition.“I feel like every week’s a challenge,” says Culliver. “Every receiver in this league is good. I just approach every week the same, just play hard.”
In having early success, 49ers coaches see Culliver growing into a more confident performer. “Been a major contributor,” head coach Jim Harbaugh said. “It’s great to watch it in practice because he’s getting better and better in practice and it’s showing up in the ball games. In special teams and on defense. Again, he’s a committed guy, a quick learner. Works very hard at it, practices very hard. He’s got a knack for getting his hands on the ball. When you see it in practice, you know you’ll going to see it in games.”
Part of that confidence has come from earning respect from his veteran teammates. “Chris is a real cool guy,” says cornerback
Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio sees Culliver’s strides similarly. It all hinges on confidence. “He’s done a good job. With a young player, the more you play, the more confident you get, the more you understand the defense, the more you learn about the league and the different offenses,” says Fangio. “So, naturally you get more confidence as you play more, not only in what you’re doing but what the whole defense is doing. He’s done a nice job for us.”
On the grand stage of “Monday Night Football,” Culliver will be in the house, Candlestick Park, with the rest of the fifth-ranked 49ers defense. In facing a 10-3 Pittsburgh Steelers team, Culliver, the Philly native, will see a team he grew up rooting against. He’ll also see a Steelers offense with the ninth-best passing attack, featuring some of the league’s fastest perimeter players.
Rogers knows Culliver will be up to the task, based on how he’s seen the rookie grow in his preparation. The rookie asks repeated questions in meetings amongst his fellow defensive backs and stays in their ears out on the practice fields. “His study habits, recognizing things that are coming on the field by formation and what he sees in practice,” says Rogers, “I think that’s the biggest thing that carries to the game field. (On tape) I see him reacting to things before the play even develops.”
Culliver will see presumably see lots of playing time on Monday along with Rogers and cornerback
So while Culliver might not take up the spotlight while spending time with his defensive back peers, he’ll be sure to let his game do the added talking on Monday. “That’s how he is,” says Rogers. “He’s quiet sometimes, but he talks, opens his mouth, especially when he got comfortable with everybody.”
The corner locker Culliver possesses is quite the testament to his sociable self. Surrounded by running backs
It’s a fitting location for Culliver and his alter ego. “He respects the veterans,” adds Donatell. “That’s the first, most important thing. He fits in great. He’s like a little brother, but they like him. And they take care of him.”
Culliver agrees, “I feel like I have people out there who help me out. Looking at the opponent’s routes, guys are giving us a good look running them in practice, I’m always trying to make plays in practice because it translates over to the games. There are always tests ahead of me and I’m just ready to take on those challenges.”
Now, the stage is set for Culliver to showcase why teammates and coaches think so highly of him. “When Cully develops into everything, he’s going to be a person you’re not going to throw his way,” stresses Smith. “He’s got that talent. He’s fast. He’s big. He’s physical. He’s got all the tools.”