New Randall on the rise

Posted: November 18, 2013

LAS VEGAS - From the top of the grandstands, the lights of the Vegas strip shine visibly a dozen miles to the east. A different world, ignored here on a high school football Friday night, when the local powerhouse is on the field for its last regular-season home game.

With a chill in the air, the quarterback's mother puts a blanket over her legs. His father adds a wool cap.

That quarterback takes off running and the P.A. announcer puts it simply: "Randall Cunningham, up the middle."

Inside this stadium, Randall Cunningham is a high school senior, a quarterback being recruited by the likes of Oregon, Texas, Southern California, and UCLA, and the top high school high-jumper in the United States. When an opposing player wants a photo with Randall after the game, it is with this young man. His father looks on, still bundled up, chatting with other parents.

The former Eagles great, in an interview later, doesn't try to hide his pride. Nobody can look at the son - just looking at his long, coltish frame - and not think of the father from his own highlight-filled playing career.

"We all believe our kids are the best - everyone on this earth," the 50-year-old Cunningham said. "We all believe our kids should be in the starting position, whatever the sport . . . in our eyes."

That night, his son had thrown a couple of touchdown passes. He had run for over 200 yards. He had shown a burst that enabled him, on consecutive drives, to run for 49 and 86 yards.

The only gamble for college recruiters coming to Vegas may be if the son turns out to be so good in one sport that the other needs to hit the back burner. But that's not the plan at all.

"It's fun," Randall Sr. said of watching his son. "It's a time to reminisce. I never really got a chance to see myself."

The father goes back to his own high school days, sees the same windup and release. "He is very, very smart, while I was just being an athlete," Cunningham said. "He doesn't cheat. He works for it."

His daughter, a high school sophomore, is the top high-jumper in the nation for her age, setting records already. Remember her name, too. Vashti Cunningham went over 6 feet last spring - the top high school jump in the country at the time, even though she was just a freshman.

The Cunninghams have a long-range weightlifting regimen. "They're not lifting like college kids," their father said. "I don't want them to peak yet."

He added, "I truly believe they are advanced even beyond what people think about."

This summer, the son had gone to the father with a specific request, asking to work on his speed. He wanted to be faster.

Early in his son's football career, back when the father coached him, "I would not let him run. He would get sacked, but I'd say: "Get it out, get it out!' "

On this night, Randall Cunningham II had the mix exactly right, taking what was given, executing the plays that were called. His footwork is precise, right down to where he stands on the sideline. Players aren't allowed to stand past the 30-yard line. Waiting to hit the field, Cunningham II stands one inch from that yard line.

"A lot of it is really genetics," Randall Sr. said of his children. "God has given them good genes."

A new playbook

Sunday services begin at Remnant Ministries at 8:45 a.m., and most of the 500 or so seats filled in quickly as gospel music filled the building. A singer owned the stage, filling the room with her voice, with accompaniment from guitar players, a saxophone, choir members, and two drummers.

In the back of the stage, over in the left corner, one of the drummers stopped drumming, briefly raising his arms as most of the congregation did the same. He wore a red open-necked shirt and a black vest, matching the rest of the musicians.

When the music ended, this man took the pulpit. He began preaching, kept at it for 30 minutes, red marker in his hand, Bible in front of him.

Pastor Randall Cunningham has a different playbook these days.

"My normal schedule would be to open up the text Sunday night," Cunningham said later. "Monday through Friday, I spend two to three hours studying, praying, reading the text, cross-referencing. Saturday, I study in the morning, and at night. Sunday morning, I run through it again."

His sermon is scripture-based. "Why don't you guys open up your Bibles to Mark 9 and 30?"

He preaches about being prideful: "When you think you have it going on, but you really don't have it going on, but you're the only one that doesn't know it. We're going to talk about that a little bit."

Cunningham knows how to present his own life as allegory, knowing his congregation is familiar with his football career. The topic was betrayal. Judas would enter the discussion later.

"I'm going to tell you something: Betrayal is a horrible thing," the pastor said. "When I went to Philadelphia, I loved the people in Philadelphia, but there came a time when I wasn't playing good. And they were like, 'Get him out of here! We need a new quarterback!'

"I kind of felt like, 'Wow, man, is that how you really feel about me?' "

Cunningham said all that in a breezy kind of way. Eagles fans would recognize the cadence. He wasn't going for fire and brimstone.

The turn of events in Philadelphia - he wasn't stunned by it, Cunningham said.

"No, that's just the way life is," he told the congregation.

People will turn their back on you, he said, and that doesn't really matter. "God allowed me to be resurrected when I went to the Minnesota Vikings. I thank God for that."

He got a laugh, and then talked about going back to Philadelphia as an opposing player.

"I didn't know how I was going to be received," he said. "That was my home for 11 years. I loved those people. We were like family, in the City of Brotherly Love. And I went back there, I was afraid to come out of the tunnel."

When he did go out there, Cunningham said, he heard a mixture of boos and cheers. He added, "I was playing for the Dallas Cowboys at the time."

Finally, he talked about when he came back to an Eagles game after he had retired - and he thanked God for the reception he received that day.

"The people clapped for me, and I felt honored that they loved me, and I felt that," he said. "It was a great, great thing. Amen."

Pastor Randall preached how everyone has to understand that at some point you feel betrayed by someone. The culprits usually are envious, judgmental, or selfish, he said.

"It's not the end of the world," he said. "You don't have to pack up or anything like that. You have to know - it's just life."

The service lasted for 90 minutes. After a 30-minute break, just enough time for everybody to get out and the parking lot to fill up again before the next service, Cunningham preached again. He also had a baptism to perform in the afternoon. He joked about what the water temperature would be. This was a full-water baptism at another minister's pool.

"Pastor Steve, is your pool heated up?" Pastor Randall asked from the pulpit. "I'm going to be there regardless. . . . They don't have a heater in the Jordan River, do they?"

Ceding the spotlight

When Baylor began recruiting the son, the recruiters called him RC2, as a reminder that RG3 had once toiled there. The son doesn't mind such nicknames. He appreciates both everything his father accomplished and also how the father pretty much stays in the background now.

"He just likes to kind of give me the spotlight - just allows me to do my thing and shine," said Randall II.

The man who coached the father in college said it isn't fair to expect the son to be the father.

"How would you like to be Randall Cunningham's son?" said Harvey Hyde, once UNLV's head coach. "Think of the pressure of it. Everyone is expecting so much out of him. They're expecting him to be Randall. . . . Randall tells me, 'Well, he's better than me, Coach.' "

Since Hyde saw greatness in the father from his first game, he said of the son: "He'll have to prove that."

The father belongs in the Hall of Fame, his old coach said. Hyde remembers when somebody from the Eagles called before the draft, saying they were going to pick him.

"If he doesn't pan out, I'm going to get fired," the man told Hyde.

"No, you are going to get a pay raise," Hyde remembers telling him.

Hyde is rooting hard for the son. He has a Vegas-based radio show and stays in close touch with the father. The younger Cunningham is considering only colleges where he can also high-jump, which means he is signing on for two full-time jobs in college. Is it possible to be on a path for the NFL at quarterback and the Olympics in the high jump? Cunningham aims to find out.

"I like USC, UCLA, Kansas State, Texas, ASU, and Indiana - and Oregon as well," Cunningham said.

All that makes sense. Take Kansas State, for instance: 2012 Olympic long- jump silver medalist Erik Kynard was at Kansas State at the time of the London Olympics.

Can Cunningham's body handle both? That will be fascinating. He looks as if he needs to add about 25 pounds to take the pounding that will come in college football. Would those additional pounds cost him trying to go over the bar?

"He's an extremely determined young man," said Scott Cooley, the head track and field coach at Bishop Gorman High, and an assistant football coach. "I won't hold anything against him. It's going to be a challenge. I think he has a lot of decisions to make. It's pretty nice to have options."

Cooley and Gorman football coach Tony Sanchez both talk about Cunningham's "yes, sir . . . no, sir," demeanor.

"He is extremely humble," Cooley said. "He doesn't get rattled by a lot of things."

Cooley remembers last spring's state track meet. Cunningham already had won it but was going for the meet record. He missed the first two tries, then he cleared 7-feet, 1 inch. Then he asked to skip 7-2; he knew 7-31/4 would be the top high school jump in the country. He went straight to that. When he cleared it, he tried for 7-5.

"He almost cleared it," Cooley said. "His first jump he caught it at the end - he was over it."

All this, the coach pointed out, after a spring football season. Next spring will be devoted to the high jump.

"The sky's the limit," Cooley said.

Randall's jump coach is his father, who had basically taught himself the sport in high school.

"He has coached not only Randall to two state championships, but a kid the year before that won the state title," Cooley said. "They do a lot of jumping, a lot of weights. So far his best jumps have been at the key times at the end of the year. Whatever their strategy is, their formula is, it's working."

Asked after the football game what his father's best advice has been, Randall II said: "Really, just trust God. If you trust God, everything will work out."

The family has known tragedy. Three years ago, 2-year-old son Christian Cunningham drowned in the family's hot tub. The elder Cunningham's faith kept him going, and his life today means being a father, coach, and pastor. Father and son watch football games together. The father hasn't let go of his own path. But he keeps it in perspective.

Asked if he wished he could have played in today's explosive read-option sets, Cunningham hedged, saying that would be nice, but added: "I'm going to tell you something - I'm old-school. I like what we did in the past."

With that, Cunningham had to cut off the interview. He'd been exact about how much time he had. A bunch of teenagers were coming in for an afternoon track workout.

"We're about to go to work," said Randall Cunningham I.


mjensen@phillynews.com

@jensenoffcampus

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