He’s Captured Some of the Biggest Moments in Sports. Only One Led Him to Tears

January 11, 2024
Portrait of Chuck Culpepper standing in front of the Olympic logo in lights

UVA alumnus Chuck Culpepper has covered nine Olympic Games in his sportswriting career, including a trip to Tokyo in 2021. (Contributed photo)

At the finale of every college football and basketball season, fitting colors of confetti rain down from an elevated area of the stadium. While most of the tiny pieces of paper eventually land on the field or court, they sometimes make pit stops on the shoulders of players or on the laptops of sportswriters. 

On Monday night in Houston, Chuck Culpepper of the Washington Post covered the college football national championship game between the University of Michigan and the University of Washington. Michigan’s dominating 34-13 win produced bursts of maize and blue confetti in celebration of the newly crowned Wolverines. 

Culpepper, a University of Virginia alumnus, is a confetti-drop veteran. He said his bosses at the Post see him as their “events person.” Over Culpepper’s well-traveled career, which has included time with USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday, and the last decade with the Post, he’s been on site to chronicle dozens of high-profile games, matches and tournaments – from the Rose Bowl to Wimbledon to the World Cup to the Final Four. 

Most of the time, at the event’s conclusion, he’s typing away, trying to make a tight deadline, and doesn’t have a moment to stop and soak in the environment like an attending fan would.

A New Focus To Fight Macular Degeneration, to be great and good in all we do
A New Focus To Fight Macular Degeneration, to be great and good in all we do

But he admits there have been exceptions, most notably on April 8, 2019, at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis after his alma mater – and the team he admired since he was a child growing up in Suffolk – won the men’s basketball national championship for the first time in program history.

“I took about five seconds when they ran out to the floor just to look out there,” Culpepper said. “My childhood was watching North Carolina do that, or Duke or N.C. State do that.

“I was noticing they had Virginia on their jerseys. It says ‘Virginia’! This is the closing Monday night and the confetti rains down and they’re the last ones.

“It really floored me in a strange way for a minute.”

Over Chuck Culpepper's shoulder of him looking at a laptop

When his alma mater won the men’s basketball national championship in 2019, Culpepper, while on deadline, took a moment to soak it in. (Contributed photo)

Marc Tracy of the New York Times snapped a photo of Culpepper on press row that night. The 1984 UVA graduate, with one hand covering his mouth and the other one resting on his keyboard, was the epitome of speechlessness.

Then Ralph Sampson, the legendary Cavalier who played during Culpepper’s time on Grounds, appeared on the stadium videoboard, which led Culpepper to tears.

“That was all about the passage of time,” he said, “and just thinking back like, ‘Wow, how did all that time woosh by so fast and here we are in the late 2010s?’”

No matter where Culpepper’s career has taken him – he’s lived in 10 states and four countries – he’s always carried Wahoo pride.

While he’s a regular now at marquee competitions worldwide, Culpepper’s first taste of a high-stakes sports atmosphere came on Dec. 11, 1982, at the since-defunct Capital Centre in Landover, Maryland. It was Sampson and the Virginia men’s basketball team against Patrick Ewing and Georgetown University, a highly anticipated battle billed as “The Game of the Decade.”

It was holiday break for UVA students, but Culpepper, then a third-year student on staff at the Cavalier Daily, scored a credential.

“The game could have never lived up to the run-up that preceded it,” Culpepper said. “There was so much excitement around it.”

Selfie of Chuck Culpepper  at a football game

As the Washington Post’s national college football reporter, Culpepper typically spends his fall Saturdays at a different stadium each week. (Contributed photo)

The Hoos won the game 68-63, a score that Culpepper is still quick to tell you without the help of any search engine. The 61-year-old also doesn’t need Google to recite “67-62,” the score of UVA’s win over the University of North Carolina to cap its miraculous ride through the 1976 Atlantic Coast Conference men’s basketball tournament and “85-77,” the score of Virginia’s overtime win over Texas Tech in that 2019 national title game.

Details of these landmark victories in the University’s athletics history naturally stick with an alumnus who feels his experience on Grounds prepared him for a career filled with deadline-defeating adventure.

“[UVA] is the first place in life that opened up the world to me,” said Culpepper, who majored in rhetoric and communication studies (as did Sampson) and served as the Cavalier Daily's editor-in-chief in 1983-84. “It was vivid and fresh and a bit ‘Wild West’ in the sense of it was my first introduction to other regions and to meet people from other regions.

“It was enthralling and thrilling to me. And I think that’s exactly why I came to believe in traveling and wandering. It factors into my approach to the job so many times.”

In 2016, Culpepper won an Associated Press Sports Editors award for his series on Middle Eastern female athletes. In 2008, he published his book, “Bloody Confused!: A Clueless American Sportswriter Seeks Solace in English Soccer.

Collage of photos from a football game, golf match and horse race
Images from Culpepper’s cell phone include evidence of his trips to cover the Rose Bowl, Kentucky Derby and Tiger Woods at the British Open golf tournament. (Contributed photos)

This summer, he’ll head to Paris to cover the Olympics for a 10th time. 

He said none of it – the travel, the long hours, the thrills, the confetti – gets old. 

“I still love going to the games,” Culpepper said. “I must derive some energy from it. The sound of the crowd, all of it. 

“There are times when you leave a stadium, and you have this incredible exhilaration. And maybe it’s from making your deadline or whatever, but I don’t know if it’s a feeling you could ever get working in a bank or a law firm.”

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Andrew Ramspacher

University News Associate University Communications