The piano man, the outdoorsman and the scholar: Culkin defies athlete norms

As the Missouri football team heads to Gainesville to face No. 18 Florida, tight end Sean Culkin heads home to the state where he became a musician, an outdoorsman and more.
Missouri football player Sean Culkin rides a wave. Courtesy of the Culkin family

If a pianist, an outdoorsman and a finance major walked into a bar, it wouldn’t just be the start of a bad joke. It would signal Sean Culkin’s entrance.

Most know Culkin, a redshirt senior, as the starting tight end on the Missouri football team or the talented high school basketball player who received college scholarship offers. "Athlete" takes up only one spot on his diverse list of titles, though.

His varied set of activities began when he first sat on his Yamaha piano bench in early elementary school. His father, Chuck Culkin, who plays piano for fun, sparked Sean’s interest. Once he saw Sean’s excitement for the instrument, Chuck signed his son up for lessons just as Chuck’s mom had done for him.

Between lessons and watching instructional videos on the internet, Sean grew into a piano player who dazzled anyone willing to listen.

“He is a beautiful player,” Chuck said. “He has really good touch.”

Sean’s relocation from Indian Rocks Beach, Florida, to Columbia forced him to abandon his piano-playing. The Yamaha piano did not make the trip, but his guitar did.

Sean began strumming guitar strings as an early teenager after he went to a camp in North Carolina. Lessons helped him become a competent guitarist, and he uses those skills to play with his father, who still plays the piano.

It’s not a perfect symphony, mainly because Chuck admits he’s not on the same musical level as Sean.

“He has a better sense of rhythm, and that would show up in our playing together,” Chuck said, laughing.

When Sean wasn’t playing piano or guitar, he was likely outside. Sean often took advantage of the ocean two minutes away from his house where he would swim, fish and go out on his boat, a Baja 23 that hung on a lift in the backyard. Sean would use the boat to wakeboard and skimboard, two of his favorite things to do.

“It was tough to honestly make sure I was taking care of football responsibilities [such as] lifting and playing basketball when my friends were going to the beach,” Sean said. “I managed to get it done.”

His schedule still forces him to turn down fun for work. While playing for the football team, Sean earned a degree in finance, a major that his neighbor and teammate Joey Burkett described as difficult. Sean graduated from Mizzou in May and works with equity managers for an insurance company as an intern.

It’s no surprise Sean received recognition as a semifinalist for the William V. Campbell Trophy, given to the nation’s best football student-athlete. This success didn’t come without social sacrifice, though.

“You’ll go in there at 11 p.m. on a Thursday night, and he is sitting at his kitchen table studying,” Burkett said. “It’s something you don’t really see very much.”

Tight ends coach Joe Jon Finley also spoke highly of Sean’s work ethic and his smarts both on and off the field, saying Culkin is smarter than he is. Finley said Culkin also outshines him when it comes to interviews.

“He’s very well-spoken as well,” Finley said. “When he does radio shows, he sounds like the coach, and I sound like the football player.”

Sean has yet to add coach to his diverse list of titles, but he has dabbled in teaching. He went on mission trips with members of his Christian high school to Alabama, Nicaragua and El Salvador, teaching local kids about Christianity. During these trips, he also helped with other projects such as erecting buildings.

He also works with kids involved with Fellowship of Christian Athletes.

“He manages his time incredibly well,” Chuck said. “Most people when they only have a half-hour, they kick back and do work later. If he has a half-hour, he is spending all of it doing his work. He is always doing things.”

Whether those things are mission trips or Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, Sean enjoys it all.

“A lot of people go into football and that’s all they think about,” Chuck said. “I like that there is a lot more to him.”

Edited by Peter Baugh | pbaugh@themaneater.com

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