Culpepper returns as Syracuse’s latest cancer conqueror

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Initially, Syracuse senior Eric Dungey thought it was a joke in poor taste. He had come to accept fellow quarterback Rex Culpepper as a prankster of sorts, but a crack about cancer? C’mon.

“I was like, ‘You took this one too far,’?” Dungey said.

“He’s always been a joker,” Orange defensive lineman Chris Slayton added.

Grim reality didn’t sink in until Culpepper — a Plant High alumnus and son of former Bucs and Gators defensive tackle Brad Culpepper — flew back to Florida this past spring to begin treatment for testicular cancer that had spread to his lymph nodes.

It included 100 hours of chemotherapy (in both Tampa and Syracuse), more than enough to tax even the most positive attitude and rigid faith.

So why the beam in Dungey’s eye, or the mild grin on Slayton’s face, when Culpepper’s name arose Thursday at the ACC Kickoff?

Because Rex is Rex again — running, lifting, throwing and joking.

“He’s truly inspirational,” Dungey said. “You can’t even tell he’s had cancer.”

On June 1, Brad Culpepper announced his son — an Orange redshirt sophomore who made one start last season — had been given a clean bill of health at Moffitt Cancer Center, where he rang the facility’s trademark bell indicating he had completed his treatment.

Shortly thereafter, he rejoined his teammates in upstate New York to resume his quest to be Syracuse’s quarterback of the future.

For now Dungey, a fourth-year starter and the only active Division I-A QB with at least 6,000 passing and 1,000 rushing yards, remains the guy. But Orange coach Dino Babers said Culpepper, who threw a touchdown pass in a brief appearance late in Syracuse’s spring game, will be able to contribute in 2018.

“He hasn’t missed a beat,” Babers said.

“Rex has looked phenomenal,” Dungey added. “I mean, he’s still working out with us, looking stronger than ever, still built like an ox.”

His comeback fortifies what might be the most inspirational roster in America. Babers said his program includes two other cancer conquerors: punter Nolan Cooney (also testicular cancer) and director of player development Roy Wittke.

“It’s monumental to me to be able to look at somebody else and see that he’s gone through it, and he’s out here punting and is completely fine,” Culpepper told syracuse.com in April.

Completely fine has a nice ring to it.

Sort of like a bell.

“(Culpepper) is an inspiration to this team,” Slayton said. “We’re gonna need him throughout this season. I think he can be a great leader as well, all the things he’s been through.”

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