Daunte Culpepper plays on with sights on the NFL

The practice field is a converted slow-pitch softball diamond and is only 60 yards long. The training facility is in the back of a deserted corporate complex in a rough-hewn part of town.

From the street, there is no sign that a professional football team resides here, nothing out front or in the windows of the vacant buildings proclaiming this the home of the Sacramento Mountain Lions of the United Football League.

The whistles, the barking of coaches — familiar sounds of practice — can be heard in the distance, and they serve as a beacon, guiding a visitor through a maze of sidewalks and around a parking garage to the field.

There, you come upon No. 8, a strapping, square-jawed, 6-foot-4, 260-pound rifleman whipping 40-yard spirals downfield, and you can’t help but wonder: What’s a nice quarterback like Daunte Culpepper doing in a place like this?

“Well, who knows?” Culpepper said, chuckling at the question. “Here I am. I’m thankful for the opportunity. It’s a joy to do what you love, to play the game and not have to worry about anything else.”

Culpepper, a 10-year NFL veteran and three-time Pro Bowl selection, seems out of place on a roster filled with players who, for the most part, were good enough to play major college football but couldn’t quite cut it in the NFL.

He is only 33, hardly over the hill by NFL standards — Brett Favre is 41 — and only six years removed from a season in which he passed for 4,717 yards and 39 touchdowns for the Minnesota Vikings.

A first-round pick in 1999, Culpepper led the Vikings to the 2000 NFC championship game. He appeared on the cover of the Madden NFL 2002 video game, signed a 10-year, $102-million contract in 2003, and was among the league’s premier quarterbacks until his career was derailed by a knee injury in 2005.

He played 31 games over the last five seasons for the Vikings, Miami Dolphins, Oakland Raiders and Detroit Lions, but said three torn ligaments in his right knee didn’t fully heal until 2009.

Dennis Green, a 13-year NFL coach with the Vikings and Arizona Cardinals, who came out of retirement to coach the Mountain Lions, scoffs at the question of whether Culpepper is still good enough to play in the NFL.

“C’mon,” Green, 61, said after practice last week, his high-pitched, raspy voice raising an octave with indignity. “I think most people know what an NFL quarterback looks like. I think he’s good enough to start.

“He throws one of the best deep balls in football, always has. His knee is healthy now, so he can run and scramble for yardage. He looked like vintage Daunte on a draw [on Oct. 23] to score a touchdown. It’s hard tackling a 260-pound guy who can run.”

But when Culpepper, who acts as his own agent, called all 30 NFL teams last winter and spring looking for a job, none offered a contract. Not even as a backup.

Perhaps they were influenced by the 32 interceptions — with only 20 touchdown passes — Culpepper had while floating among teams the last four seasons.

Maybe they thought Culpepper wasn’t as mobile, and that a quarterback with the build of a linebacker and a surgically repaired knee was a risky combination.

And there could have been some residue from the “Love Boat” scandal, in which 17 members of the Vikings, including Culpepper, allegedly had a sex party on Lake Minnetonka in December 2005.

Culpepper, who is married with five children ages 6 to 16 and a sixth child on the way, was charged with indecent conduct, disorderly conduct and lewd or lascivious conduct. But the charges against him were eventually dropped.

Culpepper isn’t sure why the NFL passed on him.

“They made a decision, and I have to live with it,” he said. “But that hasn’t soured me on the league.

“I would hope that any team that sees me and watches my film … that’s the thing, the film doesn’t lie. The eye in the sky doesn’t lie. You can see the plays I make and decide for yourself.”

Through six games, Culpepper has completed 142 of 239 passes for a UFL-leading 1,469 yards, with eight touchdowns and eight interceptions.

Green, who coached Culpepper for four years in Minnesota, said the quarterback “hasn’t had this much fun since 2004.”

Said Culpepper: “When I’m healthy, I’m the same player I was then. I feel like I can do the same things. That’s why I’m playing. To show that I’m the guy I want to be.”

Most of the monster contract he signed in 2003 wasn’t guaranteed, but Culpepper made more than $40 million during his NFL career, so he’s not in this for the money.

The average salary in the five-team UFL, which is in its second year, is about $50,000, though quarterbacks such as Culpepper and Omaha’s Jeff Garcia, another former NFL standout, make as much as $200,000 for the eight-game season.

“It’s professional football,” Culpepper said. “It’s very serious. We’re trying to win every game. I don’t look at it as a step down. It’s a great opportunity to showcase my talents and do what I love.”

Culpepper hopes to land an NFL job this month, after UFL players are released from their contracts. The Mountain Lions’ final regular-season game is Nov. 13.

""I’m open to any discussions with anybody,” Culpepper said. “I can fit anywhere. I can adjust to any situation. I don’t need to play for a certain type of coach or offense. I’m willing to do whatever is needed to help a team.”

In the meantime, he’s enjoying his reunion with Green and Sacramento offensive coordinator Mike Kruczek, a former Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback who was Culpepper’s offensive coordinator at the University of Central Florida.

And he likes being one of the — but not the only — marquee attractions for a team that has averaged about 18,000 spectators for its three home games at Sacramento State’s Hornet Stadium.

The Mountain Lions are owned by investment banker Paul Pelosi, husband of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco).

And one of their reserve running backs is John David Washington, son of actor Denzel Washington, who has attended the team’s home games.

“I’m low on the totem pole, man,” Culpepper said.

Green feels Culpepper is not far from the top.

“A guy can’t play up to his capabilities if he’s not healthy, and Daunte tore three major ligaments in his knee — rarely does a guy tear three,” Green said. “He’s a grown man, and the NFL is a tough business. No one feels sorry for anyone in pro football.

“He made a lot of money, he had a tremendous career, but he’s only 33; he’s not 37 or 38. A quarterback’s skills don’t go anywhere unless he’s injured. It took him a few years to get healthy. He’s a talented player, and he still has a passion for the game.”