SAN JOSE, Calif. — Chris Culliver made unwanted national headlines at last year's Super Bowl with derogatory comments about how he wouldn't welcome gay teammates in the 49ers locker room.
Today, he's hoping his answer to a simple question will draw a much different kind of attention:
Could you play with Michael Sam, the college standout who is likely to become the first openly gay player in NFL history?
“Of course,” said Culliver, a 49ers cornerback. “Why wouldn't I? He's a good football player. His sexuality doesn't matter. Hopefully he's on my team, and if not, I still wish him the best in the league.”
Yes, Culliver has come a long way in the past 14 months.
He has worked quietly to reshape his image by reaching out to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, trying to make amends and honor a promise — that he would learn from the experience.
LGBT leaders now speak glowingly of his growth, and how his words of inclusion carry a special weight at a time when trailblazing athletes such as Sam and NBA player Jason Collins have made their sexuality known. Last week, Culliver also received a “champion of compassion” award from a San Francisco animal welfare group because of his admirable life values, as one organizer put it.
“What Chris said was reprehensible, but at the same time he's showing that people can change,” said Wade Davis, a former NFL player and executive director of the You Can Play Project, which promotes equality in sports. “I think that speaks to the character of Chris. He's becoming one of the great voices of acceptance and understanding in the locker room.”
For his part, Culliver thinks the public is finally seeing his true character, which was forged in a hardscrabble upbringing that has become the source of his charitable work, which focuses on discouraging dogfighting and providing health care for pets in inner-city neighborhoods.
“The Super Bowl was the first time that most people had taken note of me, and it was for something bad,” said Culliver, 25, sitting in his home, located in a modest San Jose neighborhood. “All I could do was try to become a better person.”
He arrived in New Orleans for the big game as a largely anonymous player. But on Media Day, after a minute-long interview with shock comedian Artie Lange, he became a face of intolerance. Culliver clearly was uncomfortable with Lange's coarse questions. But when asked if the 49ers had any homosexual players, Culliver's response was unequivocal.
“No. Ain't got no gay people on the team,” Culliver said. “They gotta get up outta here if they do. Can't be with that sweet stuff.”
He went on to infer that even talented gay athletes wouldn't be well-received in the locker room and should keep their sexuality private until 10 years after retirement.
As the remarks exploded in social media, Culliver apologized, saying that's not “what I feel in my heart.” But at a time when society has begun widely accepting LGBT issues such as same-sex marriage, Culliver's rant seemed to confirm for many that attitudes in the sports world still lag far behind.
“It was so tough when everyone was talking about him and he said, 'Mom, that's not me,' ” said Marie Williams, who raised four children while working her way through college. “All I could say was, 'I know.' We have family members who are gay and lesbian, and we love them. Chris loves all people.”
Culliver has his own story of overcoming adversity on the journey to the NFL. He split time growing up with his mother in inner-city Philadelphia and his father in North Carolina, and tragedy touched his life in 1996.
Williams was grazed in the chest by a bullet, and her fiance, James Jefferson Jr., and another family member were killed in a lounge shooting. With Jefferson's death, Culliver lost a father figure.
Later, while playing at the University of South Carolina, he nearly died during a routine shoulder operation. Culliver had a severe reaction to anesthesia due to a condition called malignant hyperthermia, suffered cardiac arrest and remained unconscious for three days.
But what most people knew of Culliver came at the Super Bowl, where he capped a bad week by giving up a long touchdown pass in the 34-31 loss to Baltimore.
Soon after, he visited with The Trevor Project, an organization that provides crisis intervention and suicide-prevention counseling to LGBT youths up to age 24. Abbe Land, the executive director and CEO, was struck at how Culliver wanted to know more about their lives and said he would share what he had learned.
“Young people think they have to hide who they are, and that's why it's so important to have athletes like Jason Collins and Michael Sam show that it's OK just to be yourself,” Land said. “And it sends an incredible message to have somebody like Chris Culliver stand up and say: 'I get it now. I have no problem playing with anyone.' ”
Culliver didn't play at all this past season because of a serious knee injury. Just like he did as a youth dealing with hard times, he found comfort with dogs — especially his beloved American Bully, Trina.
“Being able to just pet and talk to your dog, it can make all the difference in the world,” said Culliver, who has four. “They show you compassion when you need it the most.”
His animal welfare advocacy caught the eye of Critter Lovers At Work, an organization that raises money for the San Francisco Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Honoring Culliver at its recent fundraising ball, said Susan Atherton, a board member of both organizations, was an easy call.
“We saw his work with the LGBT community and we realized that this is a young man who did exactly what he said he was going to do,” she said. “When you think of everything he has gone through in his life, Chris has made a choice to be the person he is today.”
Davis, who came out after his NFL career, recalled how the loudest cheers among his friends watching the Super Bowl came when Culliver got beat for the touchdown. Some, he added, will continue to be angry with Culliver and doubt his motivation.
“I'm sure there are people who will never truly forgive Chris or think that he's just trying to cover his (butt) now,” Davis said. “But he's talking about embracing a Michael Sam in the locker room. What we're seeing in Chris really is a blueprint for the type of change we can see in anyone.”
A recent interview with the LGBT publication San Francisco Bay Times, which featured the headline “New and Improved Chris Culliver,” has led to plans for him to work with gay leaders in the city. Culliver's foundation will hold a dog show April 5 at the Santa Clara County Fairgrounds. And, with his knee rehabilitation going well, he is in the mix for a starting position next season.
Life, Culliver said, is good.
“It's all about understanding other people and what's going on in their life,” he added. “Every person might be different, but we're still all the same.”
Go to www.chrisculliver29.com for more information about the ABKC Dog Show, which benefits the Chris Culliver Foundation.