If you’re a fan of professional beach volleyball, you’ve seen the work of Dave Culpepper, who’s done pretty well for a “beach bum.”
Culpepper has been setting up sand courts at tournaments for more than two decades, working with the entire alphabet soup of organizations, including the AVP, AVCA, FIVB, IMG, NCAA, NVL, and USAV. Culpepper is now part of the Championship Courts team, specializing in building state of the art beach volleyball courts as well as indoor complexes.
Culpepper, 54, basically grew up on the Gulf Coast, mostly in Mississippi, but was on the beaches of Alabama and Florida, too. He was bitten by the volleyball bug in the late ‘80s, when his oldest brother Joel, who played on the All-Army team, started an indoor team and asked Dave to play.
But it wasn’t long before Culpepper was drawn to the beach. Another brother invited him to play in a tournament in Gulf Shores, Ala., in 1990.
“I played the ‘A’ division, and got pretty beat up, but I got fell in love with it right there and then,” Culpepper recalled. “I loved the beach so much, I pretty much stopped playing indoor. Unfortunately, in those days nobody was teaching or training beach volleyball at that time, but I stuck to it.”
He became one of the top local players, but an accident destroyed his hopes of making it onto the pro tour.
“I was working on a sign one day and stepped out of it and fell 70 feet,” Culpepper said. “That messed up my legs, my back, my neck, and my shoulder. I was in a full body cast for a while, and then had a wheelchair for a while, and pretty much out of volleyball. That kind of killed the dream of making it to the big show.”
But that didn’t mean he couldn’t be involved in the sport.
“Although I couldn’t play competitively any longer, I knew I could work on the tour and be a part of it, so I kind of went full time building courts and tournaments once I’d recovered. That’s what pushed me into taking care of beach volleyball instead of playing it, an accident.”
Culpepper credits a lot of his achievements to being personally inspired Karch Kiraly. Two quotes from Kiraly’s book “Karch Kiraly’s Championship Volleyball” in particular hit home:
“There’s only one ball you can’t get, and that’s the one you don’t go after,” and “If you find something that you love to do, make a career out of it, and that’s happiness.”
And that’s what Culpepper did.
He set up courts for the Bud Light tour in south Florida, setting up 60 courts to earn $300/week.
“It was never about the money, it was about the love of the sport, to see the sport grow, and to see that the players were taken care of first and foremost,” he said. “They were the show. If they had a good product to play on, the show would go on.”
Culpepper’s worked his first AVP event at the 1996 “King of the Beach” in Las Vegas, and started full-time with the AVP in 2000. This week, Culpepper is working at the AVP Next at Bulldog Beach in Navarra, Fla., the huge annual Fudpucker’s event in Alabama the last weekend of April and then he’ll be back in Gulf Shores for the NCAA Beach Championship the first week of May. And what’s really cool for him is his two oldest sons, Ryan and Joel, work with him now.
After more than 20 years on the job, Culpepper recalled the five tournaments that he will remember for the rest of his life:
— “The first one is Belmar, New Jersey, I would say 2004, maybe 2003. We got the whole site built, we went to lunch across the street at Nick’s Pizza, then the sirens went off and we went underground into the basement, then the tornado came through, and when we came back out there was nothing. It destroyed the whole site. Everything. The tournament was scattered all down the pier, in the ocean, everywhere. That was pretty entertaining.
— “The second was in Dallas, Texas, I think it was 2006 or 2007. Scott Moore and I were staying in a travel trailer on site. Sirens went off again, we didn’t know what to do. We got a call from the facility people at the stadium saying that a big tornado was coming, and that we needed to get over there and get into a shelter. So we jumped in the ATV and drove over to the stadium but everything was locked and we couldn’t get in.
“We could hear it, we knew it was coming, but we didn’t have any shelter, so we took a three-inch strap and wrapped it around the pole twice, stood up against the pole and strapped ourselves to the concrete pole and watched the tornado destroy the whole site. Our idea was, ‘Well, if we’re going to go, we’ll go together.’ Of course, that means you have to get right back out there and put everything back together again in a very short period of time.
— “The very first FIVB Cincinnati, the city tried to help out, but they made the courts 40’ x 70’, and of course the minimum is 50’ x 85’, and that’s bare minimum, so basically it had to be taken apart, extended, and re-done. I spent 32 straight hours on a tractor. Never got off.
“It was a fiasco. Not to mention the fact that it was the first event, so I had to build over 200 banners to cover the courts on top of getting everything ready. It was pretty eventful, and it was just me, Hans Stolfus, and Tyler Bidle.
— “For collegiate nationals (in Gulf Shores) two years ago, I think we had 28 inches of rain in eight hours. Center court was four feet deep in water. I have pictures of kids swimming on center court. They played there the next day. And that just wasn’t an accomplishment of mine, the city jumped in with big pumps, me and the boys were tilling the sand, getting everything put back together. I consider it a feat. I don’t know anybody that had four feet of water on their court one day and were able to play on it the next.
— “In Chicago one year on Oak Street, during our breakdown, we would get hit by waves over 15 feet high. We were loading up pipe. I was in the truck, two people were handing me up pipe, and one person was watching the waves and yelling ‘Duck!’ when the waves came. The waves would crash over the seawall and over the top of the semi truck, and I would squat down, grab onto the railing, and wait for the waves to pass over me, and then load up the next pipe.
“Yeah, we had some good times.”
That’s why an AVP pro like Casey Jennings is a big fan of Culpepper, who in 2013 was inducted into the Emerald Coast (Florida) Volleyball hall of fame.
“Dave Culpepper has always watched over the players as if we were family,” Jennings said. “He will be a friend of ours for life.”
Culpepper’s passion for the game shines through when he talks about his profession.
“I tell people I didn’t make a lot of money, but I’m very rich when it comes to people and the relationships I have throughout the years. It’s priceless, to be able to have conversations with Olympians, and travel the world doing what I love to do.”
He said he made $300 a week on the Bud Light tour way back when.
“People in my Dad’s church would ask, ‘What do your kids do?’ He would reply, ‘My oldest son is a doctor, and my middle son, there, he’s a genius, a computer guru, and my daughter, she’s married, has a daughter, takes care of her kids and everything.’ And they would ask, ‘What’s your youngest son do? and Dad would reply, ‘He’s a beach bum.’
“Then years went by, and years went by, and I started working for the AVP, and traveling, and I remember someone asking the same question: ‘What does your youngest son do?’ And my Daddy said with pride, ‘He’s a professional beach bum now. He actually makes a living at it now.’ ”