Former Clemson quarterback Cullen Harper took an unusual route after his senior year of college.
Harper was a Clemson football letterman from 2004-2008, including being the starting quarterback and team captain in 2007 and 2008. He also led the ACC in passing yards his senior season.
While at Clemson, Harper broke 28 school records. He threw for a total of 5,762 yards, completing 64 percent of his passes to go along with 42 touchdowns. He also rushed for another five scores.
Harper considers then wide receivers coach Dabo Swinney to be an inspiration. During Harper’s senior year in 2008, the Clemson football team was not living up to expectations as a preseason top 10 team. Tommy Bowden was removed as head coach. Swinney took over as interim and was eventually named head coach.
“Any time you have a coaching staff change, there’s always different ways of going about things and different expectations from the coaches,” Harper said. “With Coach Swinney coming from within, we all knew what type of coach he was. We knew he was high energy and high passion and really cared about you as a player.”
After leading Clemson to wins in four of its last five regular season games, including beating rival South Carolina for the second season in a row, Harper graduated with a Bachelor’s of Science as a double major in Biology and Business Management.
Harper leading Clemson to a bowl-eligible season in 2008 arguably laid the foundation for Dabo Swinney’s success. Swinney and the Clemson program have recently emerged as the face of college football, winning two of the last three College Football Playoff national championships.
“Obviously I didn’t get a chance to coach him long,” Swinney told MUSC’s media relations, “but I’ll always appreciate how hard he competed and fought to try to leave the program better and to support me and what we were trying to build in the very infant stages of our program.”
Harper was signed by the Buffalo Bills following the 2009 NFL Draft. One year later, he felt things were not going as planned, so he decided to step away from football, go back to Clemson and get his Master’s of Business Administration.
“When I was finished playing, I had given myself a deadline,” Harper said. “I was going to a few tryouts...I felt like it was time for me to move on and open up the next chapter. Eventually the game tells you when it’s time to be finished.”
With his MBA, Harper got a job as a medical sales representative with Orthovita and became acquainted with dentists and doctors. He assisted doctors and nurses in operating rooms during knee, hip, shoulder, elbow and back surgeries when using Orthovita products.
However, he soon realized he wanted to be the individual helping patients and giving medical advice, rather than standing by and observing other medical professionals.
This led Harper to starting dental school at MUSC . After being in the classroom and working in labs, he began treating real patients in the dental clinic.
“We have great facilities at MUSC,” Harper said. “The clinic and technologies that we have available are extremely nice, but the faculty and staff are what really made it special.”
Over the next few years, Harper did oral and maxillofacial surgery externships at the University of North Carolina, Emory, Vanderbilt and two weeks with the oral and maxillofacial surgery team at MUSC. He helped with implants, wisdom teeth removal, trauma calls and jaw surgeries.
“I was a little bit nervous starting out,” Harper said. “Once you start operating on someone or put a drill to a tooth, it’s irreversible. You want to make sure you treat that patient like you would treat your family. Once I got through those first few appointments, it was no big deal.”
When asked about the comparison between the pressure on the gridiron and the pressure operating on patients, Harper had a simple answer.
“I would say there’s a lot more adrenaline and nerves going when you’re out there playing in front of that many people,” Harper said. “With people trying to take your head off on the football field, it’s a little more difficult. Everything that you do when working on a patient is under your control, but with football, so much of it is reacting to the defensive formation.”
Harper will be receiving his degree from MUSC’s commencement ceremony on Saturday. Along with his wife, Jordan; six-month old daughter, Charlie; and pet miniature goldendoodle, Henry, Harper will be moving to Augusta, Georgia, where he will begin his oral and maxillofacial surgery training at Augusta University.
After completing training, Harper wants to return to Charleston to complete his residency training.
“We’ll see what happens,” Harper said. “I really like the state of South Carolina. I would love to end up back in the area.”
For the time being, Harper continues to check off his list of accomplishments and is one step closer to becoming a dentist, something that Swinney himself noted.
“It’s been awesome to see him go on and really grow as a man,” Swinney told MUSC. “And now to become a dentist? I’m really proud of him and all of his accomplishments.”
But Harper’s accomplishments in dentistry did not come without utilizing some of the skills he learned on the football field.
“I think that same worth ethic, attention to detail and preparation methods are important,” Harper said. “The biggest thing is controlling what you can control. If you focus on the things you can control, your levels of success and outcomes are going to always be a lot better.”