Like many kids, Cullen Harper played a lot of sports growing up: baseball, football, basketball. But as he got older, it started to become clear that football was his strong suit. So, he pursued it more seriously, playing starting quarterback at Sequoyah High School in his hometown of Alpharetta, Ga., and garnering a lot of interest from athletic programs all over the Southeast in the process — including Clemson.
“All the schools I had offers from were good schools,” Harper says. “I knew I was going to get a good college education, but it had to be a combination of both academics and athletics. I decided Clemson was the best fit for me.”
When Harper wasn’t studying business in the classroom, he was leading on the field, setting 21 school records in his first season. But college ball didn’t come without its challenges. Games were lost, injuries sustained, and a major coaching change dominated Harper’s senior year: “We didn’t quite have the year we were expecting, but we overcame a lot and came together as a team with the culmination of Coach Swinney being named head coach.”
Although Harper was invited to the Senior Bowl and NFL combine, he remained undrafted by the NFL following his 2008 season. Before, football had always been the path forward for Harper. Now, it was suddenly a dead end, and he had to ask himself who he was outside of the sport. What did he really enjoy?
“Nobody can play forever,” he says. “When your time is up, it’s up. But I think I had to figure it all out a little bit sooner than I was expecting.”
After dabbling in medical sales and business development, Harper went back to Clemson, this time for a master’s in business administration. During his studies, he took a trip to visit a friend — a dentist in Singapore. The more they talked, the more Harper began to visualize his career in the same field, comparing the profession to playing quarterback.
“There’s a mental side of it, and there’s also a physical side of it,” he explains. “You have to be able to come up with the appropriate treatment plans and take care of patients, but then you also have to be able to do the work with your hands. It just came together for me.”
Harper graduated from the MUSC James B. Edwards College of Dental Medicine in May 2019 and is currently training to become an oral and maxillofacial surgeon at the University of Tennessee Medical Center in Knoxville. He plans to put his business degrees to good use and own his own practice one day. He also hopes to find a part-time faculty position to help educate and guide the next generation.
Until then, he knows he’s found his own way.
“I love it. Sometimes, I wish I’d figured it out about five years sooner,” he laughs, “but I’m right where I need to be. I’m right where I should be.”