Cunningham, Randall 1963–
Randall Cunningham 1963–
Professional football player
Randall Cunningham’s injury plagued career in the National Football League (NFL) seemed to be a model of unfulfilled promise for most of the 1990s. His leadership in the Philadelphia Eagles organization as quarter back waxed and waned in its effectiveness as broken bones and torn ligaments hindered his oft-undemonstrated stellar throwing ability, resulting in his eventual dismissal from the team in 1996. At an age when many athletes retire, Cunningham signed with the Minnesota Vikings in 1997 and made the most remarkable comeback in the NFL. Heading up a powerhouse offense, Cunningham helped to craft a team capable of winning it all.
Born on March 27, 1963, Randall Cunningham was the youngest of four boys in the Cunningham family. Cunningham’s father Samuel was a railroad worker and his mother Mabel was a nurse. His oldest brother Sam grew up to be a star running back for the University of Southern California (USC) and then the NFL’s New England Patriots. Football was a big part of all the boys’ lives growing up in Santa Barbara, California; they played among themselves every day and attended high school games as young kids. Sam, who was an NFL star during Randall’s formative years, would have his youngest brother throw him passes during his off-season workouts. By the time Randall went to high school, he had become an outstanding quarterback. In his senior season he led Santa Barbara to the state championship game and passed for 2,344 yards and 24 touchdowns, in addition to being an outstanding punter. Though everyone assumed he would attend USC after high school, Cunningham chose the University of Nevada-Las Vegas (UNLV). Cunningham was a star on the UNLV junior varsity team as a freshman, but had to grapple with the deaths of both his parents within a year of each other. His mother died of cancer and his father passed away one year later after a heart attack.
During his sophomore year at UNLV Cunningham started the season fourth on the depth chart. When the other three quarterbacks played poorly, Cunningham was promoted to the top job. Though he started slowly, the young quarterback improved with more playing time and in his final game he threw for 413 yards and four touchdowns. The following year Cunningham was named to the All-Pacific Coast Athletic Association (PCAA) team as a quarterback and a punter after throwing for 2,545
Born Randall Wade Cunningham, March 27, 1963 in Santa Barbara, CA; son of Samuel (a railroad worker) and Mabel (a nurse); wife, Felicity Cunningham; children: Randall II. Education: University of NevadaLas Vegas.
Career: Football player, led Santa Barbara High School to the state championship game, 1980; played three years varsity football at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, 1982-84; drafted in the second round of the NFL by the Philadelphia Eagles (37th overall), 1985; played quarterback for Philadelphia, 1985-95; worked on the TNT Network and started his own business, 1996; signed with the Minnesota Vikings, 1997; signed five-year extension with the Vikings, 1999.
Awards: All-Pacific Coast Athletic Association (PCAA) as quarterback and punter, PCAA Player of Year, All America punter, 1983-84; named to the Pro Bowl as an alternate, 1987; started in the Pro Bowl, 1966-90, 1998; received the Bert Sell Award as the NFL Player of the Year, 1988, 1990, 1998; named NFL Most Valuable Player, 1990; earned second team All-Pro, 1992; became all-time leading rusher amongquarterbacks, 1992; led the NFL in passing rating (106.0), 1998.
Addresses: Home —Las Vegas, NV; Office —The Minnesota Vikings, 9520 Viking Drive, Eden Prairie, MN 55344.
yards, 18 touchdowns, and leading UNLV to a 7-4 record. Cunningham saved his best season for his senior year. The UNLV team finished first place in their Conference and earned a berth in the California Bowl. He was first team All-PCAA as a punter and quarterback. In the California Bowl, Cunningham capped off his college career with a 30-13 win over the University of Toledo. Cunningham finished his senior season throwing for 2,628 yards and 24 touchdowns. He joined John Elway and Doug Flutie as the only players in college football to throw for over 2,500 yards in three straight seasons.
Cunningham was taken in the second round of the 1985 NFL draft by the Philadelphia Eagles. He was the thirty-seventh player drafted and the first quarterback taken. His start with his new team was a rocky one. Unbeknownst to the Eagles, Cunningham had already signed a contract with the NFL-rival United States Football League for three million dollars over four years. Even though he eventually signed with the Eagles, there was some resentment within the organization regarding this “cocky rookie”. In a 1992 interview with Sport, Cunningham told Larry Platt about how he was originally perceived by the people of Philadelphia: “I think a lot of that Hollywood image is because I went to school at Vegas, and because of my friendship with Whitney (Houston). I came here from Vegas and the media was saying, ‘Here’s this Michael Jackson, jheri-curl, fur-coat-and tight-jeans-wearing dude who is not East Coast style at all.’ Even though I’m not a party-type guy, my West Coast attitude turned a lot of people off.” Cunningham was forced to learn fast as he was named the Philadelphia starter in the second game of the season. The rookie threw four interceptions in his first game and started four more games before being replaced. Cunningham had a difficult first year, but he was learning what it was like to play quarterback in the NFL.
The next season the Eagles brought in a new coach—a fiery defensive specialist named Buddy Ryan. Cunningham was demoted to third string but was used as a thirddown quarterback during the preseason and then during the regular season. Halfway through the season Ron Jaworski, the number-one quarterback, was injured and Cunningham stepped in and started five games. For the season Cunningham threw for 1,391 yards with eight touchdowns and seven interceptions. He also rushed for 540 yards. The following year Jaworski was let go and the Eagles became Cunningham’s team.
Despite the strike-marred 1987 season and the team’s 7-9 record, Cunningham had a breakthrough year. He threw for 2,186 yards, 23 touchdowns, and rushed for 505 yards with only 12 interceptions. He was named the team’s offensive MVP and was chosen as an alternate to the Pro-Bowl. His efforts paid off when he signed a three-year contract worth almost four million dollars the next year—the largest contract in the league at the time. Cunningham came through for his team, leading the Eagles to a 10-6 record in 1988, throwing for 3,808 yards, 24 touchdowns, and rushing for 624 yards. Cunningham was named a starter in the Pro Bowl, was the runner up as the Associated Press Player of the Year, and won the Bert Bell Award as the NFL’s Player of the Year. Though the Eagles had the week off before starting their playoff run, they lost to the Bears in the infamous “Fog Bowl” in the second round of the playoffs. If the 1988 season was a financial boon to Cunningham, then his 1989 season lifted him even higher. Just one year after signing a record-setting deal, Cunningham signed a five-year contract extension through 1995 worth between 18 to 22 million dollars. After a brilliant first game the Eagles and their quarterback missed the playoffs. Still Cunningham threw for 3,400 yards and 21 touchdowns to earn a spot in the Pro Bowl. In 1990 the Eagles brought in a new offensive coordinator Rich Kotite. Cunningham flourished under the new system throwing thirty touchdowns and running for 942 yards. He became only the second player in NFL history to win the league’s Bert Bell Award twice. He also won the NFL Offensive Player of the Year and was voted into the Pro Bowl. In spite of the accomplishments of their star player the Eagles lost in the first round of the playoffs and Buddy Ryan was fired. The Eagles’ bad luck continued in 1991 as Cunningham missed 15 games of the season after tearing his medial collateral and posterior cruciate ligaments in the season’s opening game. A year after the knee injury Cunningham told Sport’s Platt about the effect of the injury. “I’ve always had faith that God would protect me. But last year, I had my doubts. I remember thinking that He only blesses you for so long. Getting hurt like that, so quickly, really makes you think about your own mortality. This is something I’ve grown from spiritually.” In 1992 Cunningham led the Eagles to a 4-0 record and then slumped. Coach Kotite sat Cunningham in favor of Jim McMahon and the Philadelphia locker room instantly swirled with controversy over the pitting of the two quarterbacks against each other. Cunningham was back in the lineup after one game and played well enough to put the controversy to rest. Cunningham pushed through his mid-season slump and led his team to an 11-5 record and a wild-card berth in the playoffs. The Eagles defeated the New Orleans Saints in the first round but then lost to the Dallas Cowboys 34-10 the following week. Though the season was difficult, Cunningham was named the NFL’s Comeback Player of the Year and a Second-Team All-Pro. Cunningham also passed Fran Tarkenton as the all-time leading rusher among quarterbacks. Aside from the events on the field, he married the former Felicity de Jager after the season on May 8.
The 1993 season started with great promise for Cunningham when he was named the NFL’s Offensive Player of the month for September. Then he broke his left fibula and missed the next 12 games. As was his pattern, Cunningham came back from his injury strong the next year throwing for 3,229 yards and 16 touch downs in 1994. Though Cunningham seemed to be recovering well after a successful season, 1995 was a disaster. Cunningham started the first four games of the season and then was benched for the rest of the year. When the season finished and Cunningham’s contract was up, it was apparent that he would not re-sign with the Eagles. The problem was that no other NFL team offered him a contract. As a result Cunningham missed the entire 1996 NFL season, but he did not spend his time pining away for the sport. He appeared on cable television’s TNT network as a football analyst and started his own business, Custom Marble and Granite Accessories. He moved his wife and new son, Randall Cunningham II, back to Las Vegas and began a new career cutting marble and granite for custom counter-tops and new-home construction. After a year of heaving around slabs of rock and working on his hands and knees in the trades, Cunningham ran into Minnesota Vikings coach Dennis Green, who expressed interest in the 34-year-old quarterback. Cunningham received a higher offer from the New Orleans Saints, but decided to make his reentry into the NFL with the Vikings. Despite the year away from football, Cunningham told Sports Illustrated that the break was a good experience: “I’ve been a Christian since 1987, but I was a hypocrite for a lot of that time. I was built up to be this superstar, and I spent all my time trying to live up to that…I needed to humble myself.” Eagles’ wide receivers coach Gerald Carr echoed that sentiment in the same article: “He finally realized it wasn’t all about Randall. Once he realized it wasn’t all about him being a superstar, he became one.” But Cunningham’s rise to the top did not get off to a particularly quick start. He spent his first season with the Vikings backing up the first-string quarterback Brad Johnson for all of 1997. He played in six games and started four including two playoff games. He was solid in his role as a second-string quarterback completing 44 of 88 passes for 501 yards. In the final game of the Vikings’ season the team lost in the second round of the playoffs to the San Francisco 49ers, but Cunningham gave fans a glimpse of the future, passing for 331 yards, including a 61-yard bomb to Cris Carter.
Cunningham started the 1998 season on the bench despite his impressive performance during the 1997 season. But the veteran never complained, insisting that he was happy to remain a back-up and contribute any way he could. Cunningham did not stay long on the bench. He took over the starting job after Johnson broke his leg in the second week of the season. Under Cunningham the Vikings’ formidable offense became unstoppable. In the Vikings’ fifth game of the season against Green Bay, Cunningham took his team into Lambeau Field—a stadium where the Packers had not lost in 29 games—and beat the home team 37-24. Apart from the historic win Cunningham threw for 442 yards and four touchdowns against the best defense in the NFL at the time. For the season Cunningham threw for 3,704 yards and 34 touchdowns in leading the Vikings to a 15-1 record. Though Minnesota lost in the NFC Championship game to the Atlanta Falcons, Cunningham was rewarded with a five-year contract extension for $25 million. The Cunningham-led offense broke the NFL record for total points in a season with 556. Cunningham finished the season as the NFL’s highest-rated passer, was named to the Pro Bowl, and was named the NFL Player of the Year for the third time. When asked about his unbelievable success, the player who was out of football for a full year told Jack Curry of The New York Times: “I’ve got a lot of peace inside of me now because of what God is doing for me and the power and grace that he has brought down on me. I’m happy that I’m standing here. I’m not thinking that I’ve got to hurry up and get this interview done. I appreciate each moment.”
Cunningham, Randall and Wartenberg, Steven, I’m Still Scrambling, Doubleday: New York, 1993.
The New York Times, October 6 1998; January 16, 1999.
Sport, October 1992.
Sports Illustrated, December 7, 1998.
Additional material for this profile was obtained from the World Wide Web at http://nfl.com/players/highlights/1500.html; http://espn.go.com/nfl/profiles/profile/0066.html; and http://cnnsi.com/football/nfl/news/1999/01/27/cunningham_player/.
—Michael J. Watkins
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