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Culver Portrayed as Picture Perfect

'He Put Everybody Ahead of Himself,' Says Chargers' Ross of Crash Victim

May 14, 1996|T.J. SIMERS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The picture has been there for the last five years, amid the ever-changing kindergarten art that adorns Kelly Kruse's refrigerator door. Kind of strange, really, as Kruse now admits, but the frozen moment from a postgame reception at the University of Notre Dame features Kelly and her sister Laura with their arms draped over the solid shoulders of football player Rodney Culver.

"It wasn't like we were family or friends or anything like that," said Kruse, a Detroit attorney and daughter of a former Notre Dame assistant coach, Tom Beck. "Because of my dad's job, I met a lot of football players at all levels of the game, but Rodney struck me as the kind of person you felt just lucky to have had the chance to meet.

"It's a nice smiling picture of Rodney, and it's going to stay on that refrigerator for quite a while. It will be a sad reminder of how short life can be."

Culver, 26, and his wife, Karen, were aboard ValuJet Flight 592 when it crashed into the Florida Everglades on Saturday. Culver, a running back who played for the Chargers the last two seasons, had been scheduled to report for voluntary workouts in San Diego today.

"My dad has been ill recently and it had kind of slapped me in the face," said Charger Coach Bobby Ross. "Jiminy, it was like, 'What kind of message is God sending me?' And then something like this happens."

Ross, who has been touched before by tragedy--the death of his granddaughter and then later the drowning of a young tight end on his Georgia Tech football team--is now contending with the death of a second player on his Charger team in less than a year. Linebacker David Griggs was killed in an automobile accident last June--a year after Charger assistant coach Dwain Painter had been confronted by the deaths of his former wife and daughter.

"Ironically, I still remember Rodney making the statement when David died how badly he felt for David's young child," Ross said. "It's like when my granddaughter died; I don't have the answer for it. But the way I deal with it is through my faith, and if God gave his only son for us then why not have something like this happen to us?"

In dealing with the death of Culver, the Chargers have asked a psychologist to be available at San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium. Ross will address his team when it gathers for voluntary workouts today, and in June, he said, the entire team will attend services at Culver's place of worship in San Diego.

"You can never stop thinking about Rodney and David, but after the mourning time you still have to get on with it," Ross said. "I know with Rodney's situation in the past few days I finally had to get away by myself and deal with it on my own."

The Chargers are establishing a trust fund for Culver's two children, ages 2 and 14 months, just as they did for Griggs' 1-year-old daughter. The team also intends to honor Culver and Griggs by establishing team awards in their names.

"People say nice things when these things happen, but Rodney was the real McCoy," said Bobby Beathard, Charger general manager. "This is a guy who put everybody ahead of himself.

"Sadly, you start to think about not spending enough time showing appreciation for a guy like Rodney Culver. You spend all your time with the people who have problems; that's what pro sports is all about."

Running back Jerome Bettis, recently traded from the Rams to the Steelers, wanted to spend more time with Culver, who influenced his decision to sign with Notre Dame, but life became too busy for the former teammates.

"I wish I could have had the chance to talk with him more," Bettis said, "but he got married and his life was evolving.

"He was my host at Notre Dame when I made my recruiting visit and he came from the inner city in Detroit and knew what it was like for me. He became my big brother when I went to school and now he's gone."

While at Notre Dame, Culver switched from fullback to tailback to afford Bettis more playing time. In his senior season, he split time with Tony Brooks, and yet his teammates still unanimously selected him team captain.

"Normally at Notre Dame, the team has three captains, but Rodney was our lone captain that year," said Justin Hall, an offensive tackle at the time and now a graduate assistant coach.

"This makes no sense to me at all. The last couple of days I've been in a zone, wondering why things like this have to happen to people like this. Fortunately, I'm here at Notre Dame surrounded by people who care, and that's one of the reasons Rodney was part of Notre Dame, because he cared for so many people."

Rod Smith, Culver's roommate at Notre Dame and now a defensive back for the Vikings, said, "I don't know how to feel. I've been through so much with Rodney; I can't imagine never being able to talk with him again. That's why it hurts so much now. I don't have anyone to lean on."

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