Interview: Brad Culpepper talks ‘Survivor: Blood vs. Water’

Playing in the NFL is hard.
I only mention this because twice in the past two weeks, I’ve done exit interviews with reality contestants who wanted to make it clear that nothing that happened in front of CBS’ cameras was anywhere near as difficult as what they experience on the gridiron.
This week, it was Brad Culpepper from “Survivor: Blood vs. Water.”
By most standards of measurement, Brad was the dominant presence for the first third of the of the “Survivor” season. The former Tampa Bay Buccaneer controlled the all-male alliance in the largely dreadful Tadhana tribe, a ringleader position that led to heated shouting matches and accusations of sexism during the regular weekly Redemption Island Duels. And when Brad was voted out, it was the season’s most dramatic Tribal Council, a spur-of-the-moment frontside blindside courtesy of Caleb.
In an exit interview that got a tiny bit heated at times, Brad takes exception to the way he was characterized throughout the season and hints at even worse insults we didn’t see. He discusses his approach to the game and how it put wife Monica at the center. And he explains which bad move he was referring to when Jeff Probst snuffed his torch at Tribal Council.
Click through for the full Q&A.
HitFix: The final Duel that did you in was walking on a balance beam and counting to 100. What did you think of that final task and what would you have liked to see instead?
Brad Culpepper: I would have probably preferred holding a big car battery out in front of you for a certain amount of time. I think I could have won that. Maybe a clean-and-jerk contest? A benchpress contest would have been nice? No, when I saw the balance beam and having to untie all the knots? I mean, I can do alright on that and John and I made a game of it between each other, but Laura Morett? She’s four-foot-nothing and barely has to bend over and she’d already proven in the skeeball contest how fast she was at untying knots, so it was right her up her alley. And the puzzle wasn’t really a puzzle. I think I’d have much preferred it to be a complex puzzle, than just counting to 100, because that’s basically a search-and-peck type deal. Which tiles are over and which are under? You’ve gotta flip ’em over and just find No. 3 instead of trying to figure out what comes next. I dunno. I did my best and it just didn’t work out for me.
HitFix: When you said good-bye to Monica after the Duel, you said that you came into the game hoping to be a shield, but you ended up being an anchor. When did you realize that that might become the case?
Brad: Well, the format they had was pretty tough, because normally in regular “Survivor,” you vote somebody out of your tribe and their dirty laundry goes with them. In this, you’d vote somebody out and not only would they bring real dirty laundry, but in this case it was a bunch of made-up stuff. Actually what you saw on television was much milder than what was really happening at Redemption Island. They were just screaming vulgarities and taking things extremely personally. There seemed to be some Bitter Bettys down on Redemption Island. When we voted out Rachel, which was mainly Vytas’ choice, immediately Tyson turned to me and said, “Hey, football guy, I’m coming to get you.” And it’s like, “Whoa. Wait a minute. I wasn’t the ringleader of voting out your loved one,” but when that happened, I got back to camp and I was like, “Wait a minute. Oh my God. They’re gonna start holding it against Monica, because they think I’m the ringleader in regards to who’s getting voted out.” So at that point, I’m thinking, “Alright, if we lose again, I’ve gotta get rid of somebody who’s not gonna adversely affect Monica.” That’s why the whole thing with John happened. If I was playing regular “Survivor,” I would never have gotten rid of John. I would have stayed five guys strong til the end, but because I’m worried about Monica, how can I get rid of somebody that she could potentially be connected with? So John was logical to me. In hindsight, maybe I should have gone with Caleb. He was not connected either, because Colton quit. But that was my whole thought process. 
So you ask when did it hit me? Right then, when Tyson started blaming me for his girlfriend going out, I started thinking and not only that, but I’m starting to think, “If they lose, they’re gonna get rid of Monica just to get rid of me.” I’d already told my tribe, or my alliance in my tribe, “If Monica goes down to Redemption Island, I am 100 percent going in for her, so please bring her up here into our tribe and treat her as you would treat me, bring her into our loop.” So that was the turning point.
HitFix: When you look back at your reading of this season’s specific strategy, it seems like you caught onto the different implication of the twist faster than a lot of people did. Do you think you were maybe over-strategizing around that twist? Or were other people under-strategizing or under-realizing how it was a different game?
Brad: It was a different game because I had my wife over there and very few others did. I think Rupert had his wife and John had his wife. Are you married?
HitFix: I am not.
Brad: OK. Do you have a… significant other at all?
HitFix: Not at the moment, but I certainly have.
Brad: OK. When I play against my wife, that’s a different game than if I play against my brother or if I play against my parent or if I play against my cousin or if I play against my girlfriend, OK? So, maybe I was over-strategizing, but my concerns were that my wife is above me. My alliance is my wife, 100 percent, and I’m sure Vytas’ alliance was Aras and everybody’s, but they put themselves first and their alliance second. I put my wife first and that’s different and if anybody’s married or has a partner, they absolutely would put that person ahead of themselves if they’re happily married. I love her to death and I love her more than I love myself, so my strategy at the outset is probably different than somebody else playing against their brother or playing against their cousin. Does that make sense?
HitFix: It does.
Brad: So am I over-strategizing? I don’t know, but I have to. I want to make the Merge with her, therefore I don’t want to disconnect a lot of people. It was unfortunate that I had no idea what connections she had on her tribe, because they never lost. The whole time I was on there, we lost every time and I have no idea who she’s with, but I do know who she’s not with. She’s not with Candice. She’s not with Colton, because he quit. But that’s it! That’s all I know. So you have to think down the line. It’s not like regular “Survivor.” If it’s regular “Survivor,” I’m going five guys strong and I could care less about the other tribe, but it was very difficult. Being that my No.1 goal was to get Monica to play the game, because she never got a shot the first time, whether I made smart moves or not remains to be seen, depending on how well Monica does, because that’s my primary goal. Secondary goal would be for me to get far, but that didn’t work out. Maybe there were moves that didn’t quite help me, but did those moves help Monica? I don’t know. We’ll see.
HitFix: I’ve been asking everyone this and I can already guess your answer pretty easily, but when you and Monica strategized beforehand, was there any agreement that it was ever going to be OK for one of you to write the other’s name down? Would you have ever written Monica’s name down? Would you have ever been OK if she’d written your name down?
Brad: Only in a last-case-scenario, like Final 3, maybe? If she and I were both going to be Final 3, there might potentially be blowback, like there’s two Culpeppers and one somebody-else. Let’s say it was Final 4 and we would maybe discuss, “OK. Somebody go back to Ponderosa and lobby for the other one to win,” but only that scenario. And would that have happened? I don’t know. But realistically, to answer your question, no way. I would never have written down her name, other than that, and I don’t think she would have written down my name either.
HitFix: Going back a bit, you talked a bit about the stuff that we didn’t see that was hurled at you during those Duels. Is there anything you want to highlight? Is there anything you particularly disagreed with?
Brad: I wouldn’t be happily married to Monica for 22 years if I were a sexist or a misogynist. I’m a very liberal Democrat. A lot of stuff that was said didn’t eve make the air because it just made no sense. The people down on Redemption Island spent very little time with me and were taking everything very personal. What wasn’t shown one time was when I went down there the very first time, I opened up the floor for everyone to talk and every single person on my tribe, to a person, said glowing things about me. Ciera was like, “He gives me hugs and kisses my head when I feel bad about how well I didn’t perform in a Duel.” They said “He cooks, he cleans, he does everything around. He never bossed us around.” And that’s when they did show me say to Candice, “That’s what he said and he said and she said and she said and your husband said.” They only showed the tail end of that. They didn’t show actually what everyone said. We bellyache-laughed every single day and every single night on our tribe. We actually had a fantastic time and the thought or the perception that the two girls on Redemption Island were trying to portray were not actually the way it was on our tribe. And, if it were, there would have been a lot of votes for me prior to when the 11th hour vote came in and I definitely wanted to leave my tribe thinking good thoughts of me, because potentially they may have to play with Monica. And, again, I wanted them not to think I was a Dour Dan, or whoever, so I was like, “Look, it’s a game. I get it. I’m not mad at ya.” And another side of my head was saying, “Well, first of all, it is a game and I’m not overly worried about it. It’s not life or death. And second is, I want them to have good thoughts of me so they’ll embrace Monica should they need to play with her later in the game.”
HitFix: So that was a strategic move, being that graceful as you left?
Brad: It was both. It was a strategic move for Monica and that’s how I am. I played close to 10 years in the NFL. That’s pressure. That’s my life. That was tough. Playing “Survivor” was fun. It was a game to me. It’s not life or death. The money wasn’t gonna make or break me. That was sincere saying, “Guys, I enjoyed it. I’m not mad at you.” And I wasn’t. But I also realized, pretty quickly… It was pretty much a shock to me, as it was a shock to pretty much everybody on our tribe the way it happened, but I was thinking initially, “OK. Let me go out and I don’t want them to hate Monica because I gave them glaring looks or whatever.”
HitFix: When you left, you said, “I made a bad move.” Now I’ve got several possibilities for what that could have been referring to…
Brad: [Laughs.] You do, do you?
HitFix: But which one were you specifically referring to?
Brad: I’ll tell you what it was — what I was thinking at the time and maybe I made other bad moves — I took Caleb for granted. He really was under the radar. He was a little bit of a wallflower, which is probably a very strategic way to play “Survivor.” I didn’t pull him aside aside strong enough and say, “Caleb, I’m not voting you out. There may have been discussions about it, but that’s only because you were unconnected, but I’m not voting you out.” I wasn’t. My mistake was taking him for granted. That was the beauty of his game, but that’s exposed now that he made that big a move, because now I made it clear to everybody on the other tribe, “That guy can play. He is a player. Do not sleepy on Caleb.” So the gig was up in regards to him being under the radar at that point.
HitFix: But in your mind, does it make a difference if you target Katie and Ciera first… [He interjected and agreed before I could get out the second half of my question, which would have been “rather than voting out two stronger women with the first two votes.”]
Brad: Yes, absolutely. Katie and Ciera, they could be connected with Monica, their loved one could be, and if I throw them out there, I’m gonna get the vitriol from their loved ones and, again, Monica could be adversely  affected. I spent all day talking to Vytas about that and they didn’t show any of it, but Vytas was very sure that he thought Monica and Aras were together, although none of us knew, really, because we had no communication with the other tribe. He thought that having Caleb at the Merge, even thought he was disconnected, would be an advantage, because we thought that he would do what we did. He took Caleb for granted as well. So no, targeting them, while it may have helped me and my tribe, it’s not going to necessarily help Monica and I really was concerned with her positioning more than I was myself. I don’t know why everyone’s having a hard time wrapping their head around that. That’s just the way it was. I wasn’t playing regular “Survivor.” It was not regular “Survivor” to me. I’m playing against my wife. She’s No.1. I’m No.2. So yeah, if I’m playing “Survivor” 25 or 26, it’s five guys to the end. I’m not touching anybody. But unfortunately it was not that and we keep losing and I can’t vote somebody off that’s gonna potential affect Monica.
HitFix: Just as a last question: You talked about all of the stuff that was hurled at you that you didn’t agree with. Was there anything that actually struck a chord? That caused you to reconsider any behavior that you have have had? Or were you pretty much just OK with how you played out there?
Brad: Well, what was said… That I shushed women? That was dumb. I didn’t do any of that. That I told her not to fish was incorrect. We didn’t have fire the first three days that Marissa was on our tribe, so she could fish all she wanted, but nobody fished unless you wanted to eat sushi, it wasn’t even an option. I promise you, there was nobody standing in the way from her making fire. We all tried. She tried. She didn’t make fire. There was never a moment where I did that. No! The stuff that was hurled was all BS. I disagree with all of it. Ask the people who were on the tribe who spent some time with me whether it was true or not, you know? No. You’d have to remind me what was said.
HitFix: Just if you watched any of what played out this season, either while you were there or on TV afterwards, and said, “Maybe there’s a grain of truth to some of that.” But it sounds as if you’re content.
Brad: I’m very content with myself. I am who I am. Wolves can’t concern themselves with the thoughts of sheep. I hate to say it, but the way you’re asking me like… Stuff was said like, “You’re a trial attorney. That makes you a liar.” That was said. “You called your wife the c-word.” That was said. There was all kinds of vitriol that was said that was not aired that made no sense. So that’s why I find your questioning a little bit troublesome, because it was out of control. “He’s a racist. He asked if I played basketball.” I can’t even comprehend those questions. It doesn’t make sense. So no, none of that resonated with me at all. I’m not mad at you, Dan. It’s just kinda like I don’t know how to answer. It’s like if a kindergartner yells something like, “I’m gonna beat you up.” It’s like, “OK.”
HitFix: Then that’s your answer. You gave the answer.
Brad: OK. Alright. We’re cool. I’ve been doing a lot of these and it’s just like, “Golly, I’m having to defend myself for stuff that wasn’t true.” What do you do?