Sept. 11, 1989
Sept. 11, 1989

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Sept. 11, 1989

Blue Jays
NFL Preview '89
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"We're More Than Just National News"

This is an article from the Sept. 11, 1989 issue Original Layout


Late Edition
It will be another nail-biting season for the defending NFC East Division champions, who will have to play with high emotion. Details by Dr. Z, page 106.

City of Brotherly Love Agog! World Next!

Philadelphia—Randall Cunningham, the elusive quarterback who often shows up where he isn't expected and rarely shows up where he is, attended a routine Eagle minicamp at Veterans Stadium in May, even though coach Buddy Ryan had told him to stay home in Cherry Hill, N.J., and rest up for the season. The Eagles expect big things from Cunningham this year.

Cunningham played catch one-handed with punter John Teltschik before running a passing drill beneath the practice bubble in the parking lot across the street from the stadium. Some of his passes were even caught by the bug-eyed rookies and free agents. "Gotta learn not to blink," one of them muttered on the way back to the huddle after a particularly egregious drop.

Cunningham was the lone Eagle who wore no number. The hopefuls knew who he was. He looked them over from his 6'4" height, the light glinting off the silver wings on his helmet. He scanned their pitifully disguised alignments. He recognized the schemes. He sighed.

"Set! 150! Go!" Receivers scattered like buckshot. Cunningham hummed the rock on the money. "They want us to try to stop this?" said a defender.

"Yeah, but they don't expect us to," said another.

Mike Schmidt retired from the Phillies this spring. Julius Erving is long gone from the 76ers, and Charles Barkley is still developing. Ron Hextall of the Flyers is, well, a bit crazed. Philadelphians have looked around and wondered who can be their champion. What athlete can prove worthy of the city's vaunted venting of its collective spleen? "If he'd cooperate, Randall would own this town," said Howard Eskin, a local radio personality who was pacing the sideline.

Not that Cunningham would never hear another boo. In Philly the boo is the stamp of approval. Sports fans here don't boo just anybody. They boo the best. Children booed Schmidt, and he was probably the best third baseman ever to play the game. In 1980, after Schmidt was named National League MVP and the Phillies won the World Series, he said, "Philadelphia is the only town where you can experience the thrill of victory and the agony of reading about it the next day."

Inside the bubble, Norman Braman, who owns the Eagles, fired up a cruise missile that turned out to be a cigar. "Randall is a talent, a great natural athlete and a great leader on the field," he said. "He's made himself what he is. Randall's teammates believe he can do anything. You can't give up with him."

"Last year Buddy came up to me and said, 'It's your offense. If it doesn't work, it's going to be your fault,' " said Cunningham, looking serious. "I don't mind that at all. Let the pressure be on me, not Buddy. Buddy has given me a home."

After practice Cunningham walked in the gray bowels of the Vet with wideout Henry Williams, a former Canadian Football League and USFL player who signed with the Eagles. Reggie White, the Eagles' giant defensive lineman, nicknamed Williams "Gizmo" because of his size (5'6") and facial resemblance to the leading little monster in the film Gremlins. Gizmo runs a 4.3 40, and when he isn't running, the only Eagle who can understand a word of what he says is Cunningham, who believes in communicating with receivers at all costs.

How good is Cunningham, Giz? "Supahback?" said Gizmo. "CDs craws?"

Gizmo held up two crooked hands, which made him look like a man with arthritis. But why was he discussing financial planning? "No, he said, 'See these claws?' " said Cunningham. "He means his hands haven't been relaxed. He isn't accustomed to catching passes with big league pace. Giz can break up an entire restaurant without anyone knowing what he's talking about."

Amazing. Not only does Cunningham run, kick (he's the Eagles' backup punter), pass, decimate NFL defenses, own an option on Philadelphia's inkwells and airwaves, play catch one-handed, get booed, get cheered and show up to work out with rookies, but he also speaks Gizmo. "The Boss doesn't have anything to prove around here," said Ryan, calling Cunningham something Ryan never deigned to call Bears coach Mike Ditka when Ryan worked in Chicago. Of course, Ryan is really the boss.

"Yeah. But I don't play," said Ryan. "I coach. Randall plays. Good deal, eh?"

Pro Football Roundup: A Bird of Prey

•Nov. 6, 1988: With the Eagles leading the Rams 20-10 in the fourth quarter at Veterans Stadium, Cunningham executed a tight-formation play fake at the Los Angeles two-yard line. He turned to face a horde of unfaked Rams. His intended receiver, tight end Keith Jackson, ran diagonally across the end zone, wearing a linebacker on his back. Cunningham floated the ball in for the score while getting knocked backward. The Eagles went on to win 30-24.

•Oct. 2, 1988: Philadelphia was leading the Houston Oilers 20-16 in the third quarter at the Vet when Cunningham sprinted left at the 39-yard line, found no open receivers, doubled back to the right, directed his blockers, accelerated, split two defenders and cut back left on the way to completing a 33-yard touchdown run. The Eagles won 32-23. As he was being leg-tackled in the end zone, Cunningham tidily turned his body so as not to fall on the ball and knock the wind out of himself.

Last season the Boss led Philadelphia to a 10-6 record and its first Eastern Division crown in eight years. He threw for 24 touchdowns and set Eagle records for attempts (560), completions (301, 54%) and, passing yardage (3,808). His 624 yards rushing made him the team's top runner for the second year in a row. Not since Tobin Rote, who was the Green Bay Packers' No. 1 ground-gainer in 1951 and '52, had an NFL quarterback led his team in rushing for two straight years. All told Cunningham either passed or ran for 75% of Philadelphia's offensive yardage in 1988.

Clubhouse Confidential: Boss Notes

•Hall of Fame quarterback Terry Bradshaw slighted Cunningham—in Cunningham's opinion at least—when he laughed at Randall for comparing himself to Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Wayne Gretzky. Cunningham approached Bradshaw before the memorable fog game between the Eagles and the Bears in January, which Bradshaw was covering as an Analyst for CBS. Cunningham asked, "Hey, man, why do you dog me out like that on national television?" Bradshaw said, "I'm glad you asked," and, according to Cunningham, went on to describe his role as a dispassionate journalist.

Cunningham said, "O.K., but why do you dog me out on national television?"

In the game, a divisional playoff, Cunningham threw into the fog for 407 yards out lost. During the broadcast, Bradshaw said of Cunningham. "He's an athlete, he's not a quarterback."

Remember Hollywood Henderson's comment: "Bradshaw couldn't spell cat if you spotted him the C and the A"? Bradshaw hasn't forgotten. He'll be damned if Cunningham gets off any easier. That's just the Confidential guess, however.

•Cunningham broke up with his fiancèe four to five weeks before their June 4, 1988, wedding date. He still declines to discuss the relationship or what went wrong, but the abrupt end was clearly painful. "My mom and dad told me not to trust anybody, because people will hurt you," Cunningham told the Confidential. "I met this woman. I thought I was in love with her, and I got hurt. After that, I didn't trust anything, anybody. Now I keep one step back. I doubt if I'll get married soon."

•Cunningham used to go house hunting around Philadelphia with a real estate broker, Mike Brown, searching for the perfect home. Now he is in the final stages of planning a million-dollar house to be built in Morristown, N.J. His present house is spotless, trim, conservatively decorated and filled with clocks: big clocks, little clocks, wall clocks, tall clocks. He is proud of the job he did decorating it. "But this is practice—wait until I get my real home," he says.

•Cunningham throws around nickels the way he throws around Reggie White. A rare extravagance is a suit of armor that stands in his foyer. He paid $4,000 for it, on impulse. It faces the front door.

Notables and Quotables

"I didn't know whether to block or go out to receive, so finally I just said, 'Go, Randall, go!' "—Roger Craig, 49er running back, on his experience at the '89 Pro Bowl.

"This guy wouldn't surprise me if he ran for a 90-yard TD or threw for one."—Sid Gillman, Hall of Fame coach.

"Of the quarterbacks I've coached, he and Roger Staubach are the closest, in ability. I don't think Randall has a weakness."—Doug Scovil, Eagle quarterback coach.

"I'm an impact player Impact. That is what separates guys like me, Michael, Magic and Gretzky from the others. It's a proud feeling."— Randall Cunningham

Sports Stumper

Q: Who has had the greater impact on football, Randall or his big brother, Sam the Bam Cunningham?

A. Not easy, eh? Sam now 39, is the oldest of the four Cunningham brothers. Then come Anthony, 34, Bruce, 28, and Randall, 26. Sam went to Southern Cal, where he scored four touchdowns in the Rose Bowl and helped the Trojans win the national title in 1972.

In the words of Bear Bryant, "Sam Cunningham did more for integration at Alabama than anyone else, including Martin Luther King." The comment refers to the day Cunningham ran for three touchdowns to lead USC to a 42-21 rout of the Crimson Tide in Birmingham in 1970. The Tide was still all white.

Sam went on to play for the New England Patriots from 1973 to '79 and again in '81 and '82. He remains the Patriots' alltime leading rusher, with 5,453 yards, and their fifth-leading receiver. But in the end his race overshadowed his play. He is mostly remembered for what Bryant said.

Randall could have gone to Southern Cal as a defensive back, but he was determined to play quarterback, so he enrolled at UNLV in 1981. "Come on, you're going with me," said Bruce, who was a junior defensive back for the Runnin' Rebels.

Randall endured a rough year before starring at quarterback. His mother died during his freshman year. The following spring, Tony Gilbert, a friend who worked out with Randall and Bruce in Santa Barbara, died of cancer. Gilbert was a triple jumper and hurdler at Michigan State. "During a workout before Tony died," says Bruce, "Randall threw a ball from one end of the field to the other, and Tony dove in the end zone and caught it. He came back, breathing hard, and said, "Randall, one of these days you are going to be the best quarterback in the NFL.' Randall didn't forget." That November Cunningham's father died.

Cunningham won the starting job in the second game of his sophomore season. Over the next three years he became only the third quarterback in NCAA history—the others are John Elway of Stanford and Doug Flutie of Boston College—to throw for 2,500 yards in three consecutive seasons. In 1985 he became Philadelphia's second pick in the NFL draft.

Cunningham saw little action as a rookie. Then Ryan took over as coach in 1986, and he began playing Cunningham as a specialist on third-and-long. The next year, Ryan installed Cunningham as the starter. He finished third among NFC quarterbacks in touchdown passes (23) and rushed for a team-high 505 yards.

National awareness came in a Monday night game against the Giants last October. Cunningham completed 31 passes—three for TDs—and leveled Lawrence Taylor with a block to free running back Anthony Toney for a 17-yard gain en route to a 24-13 Eagle victory. At season's end he was named MVP of the Pro Bowl.

But Cunningham is a black quarterback before he is anything else. That's just the way it is. Cunningham is the black quarterback who is encouraged to be the Boss, call his own plays and dance with the press. He might become a quarterback for the ages, but, like Sam, he will probably be remembered, first, for being a black athlete who broke new ground.

Sam the Bam, who owns a landscaping company in Long Beach, Calif., and Randall don't get together much to compare notes on their careers. After Sam signed with the Patriots in '74, he bought his family a house on Murrell Road in Santa Barbara, and that's where Randall lived until he graduated from Santa Barbara High in '81. After their parents died, Bruce moved up the coast to Lompoc, Sam to Long Beach and Randall eventually to Philadelphia. Sam continued to own the house until late last year, when he let it go—to Randall's surprise. Randall says Sam never told him he was giving up the place. He was upset to learn the house he had grown up in was gone, just like his parents, just like his fiancèe, just like the idea that people don't care what color you are.

Randall sometimes calls Sam. Most of the time he gets the answering machine. He doesn't usually get a call back. "That's all right," says Randall after one more call. "I'm on my own now."


Mabel and Samuel Cunningham, beloved mother and father of Sam Jr., Anthony, Bruce and Randall. Mabel died of cancer at Goleta Valley Community Hospital in Santa Barbara in November 1981. She was 55. Samuel died at his home in Santa Barbara of congestive heart failure in November 1982. He was 62.

"Mabel was the backbone, the stabilizing force. She had the discipline and the values, and she instilled them in her sons," says Nettie Hyde. She is sitting in the parlor of her home in Oakland. Nettie is Mabel's sister. "I lived with them on Santa Barbara Avenue, down by the railroad tracks, long before Sam bought the house on Murrell and they moved," she says. "Mabel didn't spare the rod. Even after the boys became big and athletic, she'd say, I don't care if I have to stand on a stool, I can still knock you down.' "

She sighs and asks if her guest would like some tea. Her home is spotless, like a doll's house. Inside the house is another house, this one doll-sized, with tiny bedspreads and curtains Hyde made by hand. She pulls out a photo album of the Cook sisters and their families. "Look at Randall. He hasn't changed," says Hyde, pointing to a photo. "I brought him home from the hospital. Seems like yesterday."

Mabel was a nurse. Sam Sr., a strapping Texan with a smile like a half-moon and big ideas, worked mostly as a redcap and porter for the Southern Pacific railroad. But the big ideas ended for big Sam after he lost his job when the railroad cut back its routes while little Sam was in junior high. Sam Sr. watched the jets fly overhead and brooded about the demise of train travel.

"My father was a wonderful man," says Bruce. "He was hard on us, especially Randall. He was the baby, so my father would have to yell at him sometimes, so he wouldn't be spoiled. Randall was wild and crazy and happy, once. All the warnings my father gave us—about developing a skill and not waiting for people to give you a break or to like you, because they wouldn't—were over our heads. We didn't understand. It's all clear now."

Sam Sr. and Mabel separated when Sam was at USC, though they would reconcile years later. In the meantime, Anthony lived with his father. Bruce and Randall stayed with their mother. "You have to understand my family to understand Randall," says Bruce. "I know I trip on death, worry about it, because of what happened. Sometimes I think, Life is hard, then you die. I know Randall does, too. But as a football player, Randall worked for it and got it."

"She had herself some sons, didn't she?" says Hyde. "And I think nobody misses her like Randall does. And I do."

Randall calls his aunt Nettie often. "I am a link for Randall, yes," she says. "He loved his mother so. Once he was mad about something, a bad game, and he shouted at me. I told him to please remember who he was talking to. I know you're hurt, but don't raise your voice to me. I tell him to make himself proud. Make the memory of his parents proud, make me and his brothers proud, but make himself proud first."

Tomorrow in Sports

Cunningham does not signal the advent of magisterial black quarterbacks with arms like crossbows and legs like Gale Sayers's any more than Magic Johnson signaled the advent of 6'9" point guards with eyes in their ears and a dribble like Cousy's.

Yet the day will come when Cunningham can no longer sprint past the rush and slither his way downfield, when he will have to run the game from the pocket, because that's the nature of the position.

"I know I'm not going to play forever," he says. "Long enough to win the Super Bowl, and maybe one more year after that. I give so much of myself on Sunday. I drain all the life out of myself out there. I get paid to play, to win, to give the city pride, so maybe everybody can forget for a little while how hard life is."

Night falls on the city. Steam rises. Cunningham sets his jaw, narrows his eyes. He says, "When the Eagles win, Buddy wins, I win, Philadelphia wins."

PHOTO ILLUSTRATIONLOUIS PSIHOYAS/MATRIXPHOTOPHOTOSPORTS CHROMECunningham led the Eagles in rushing during each of the last two seasons, and in '88 his running and passing yardage accounted for 75% of the team's offense.PHOTOBILL BALLENBERGIn his present living room, Cunningham (left) and Brown go over the blueprints of what Randall calls "my real home"—a million-dollar house he is building.PHOTOMICKEY PALMER/FOCUS ON SPORTSSam the Bam: Race eclipsed his play.PHOTOLOUIS PSIHOYAS/MATRIXCunningham shares a streak of meticulousness with Hyde, above tending her dollhouse in Oakland. She made the tiny curtains and bedspreads by hand.PHOTOFOCUS ON SPORTS