Birth of a new era

Posted: April 04, 2014

FOR SOME reason, the subject of athletes taking paternity leave is in the news. Jimmy Rollins missed the Phillies' game Wednesday night to be with his wife for the birth of their daughter and the world around here shrugged. Of course he went home - up to 3 days' leave has been in the collective bargaining agreement since 2011. It isn't even a question anymore, nor should it be. Whatever the father and mother decide to do is the correct decision, and that's that.

But it became a thing on sports talk radio in New York because the Mets' Daniel Murphy took some time away from the team for the birth of his child. It is hard to believe in 2014 that someone would argue that paternity leave is a "scam," but that was WFAN host Mike Francesa's take on the subject. (Today, he likely will argue against the evils of the MRI.)

But 2 decades ago, Francesa would not have been such an outlier. In January of 1996, in this very town, the debate was long and loud and protracted - because it involved the Eagles and, specifically, quarterback Randall Cunningham.

At that point, Cunningham was the team's backup quarterback, playing behind Rodney Peete. Ray Rhodes was in his first season as the coach. The Eagles made the playoffs and were scheduled to play at Texas Stadium against the Cowboys on Sunday.

As they often did then, before they had an adequate indoor facility, the team traveled to a warmer climate to practice. This time, they went to Vero Beach, Fla., and took over the Los Angeles Dodgers' spring training facility. Everything was set, except for Cunningham. His wife was about to deliver their first child in Las Vegas, and he left to join her.

The club was OK-ish with Cunningham's decision, at least publicly. Anybody who spent any time around him back then could be pretty sure that Rhodes wasn't much of a paternity leave kind of guy, but I don't remember him saying very much about it either way.

But then there was a problem. At some point, as Tuesday became Wednesday morning, and Wednesday morning became Wednesday night, the club became aware of the fact that Cunningham neglected to bring his playbook with him - and, back then, rectifying the problem wasn't as easy as sending him a PDF. Around that time, Cunningham's trip became a little bit less OK-ish with the club - although, again, nobody said anything critical, at least not publicly.

On Thursday morning, Cunningham called Rhodes with the news that the baby was born, a boy, and everyone was doing OK. Rhodes told reporters the news that afternoon, and said that the anticipation was that Cunningham would be back in Florida by Thursday night, or maybe Friday morning. The universal hope was that, even though he didn't have the playbook, he would get to practice on Friday and have time to salvage the thing.

But he missed practice on Friday, the last real practice of the week. He got in late on Friday and crammed as best he could on Saturday. But Cunningham had never been a great playbook guy to start with and, well . . .

You can imagine how all of this was playing out back home. Let's just say that the operative word was "loudly." Cunningham had been a lightning rod for a full decade at that point, and this was truly something - what at the time was a legitimate societal debate combined with the guy who once left an exhibition game at halftime to attend Whitney Houston's birthday party. It was one glorious stew.

For the Eagles, the only consolation was that Cunningham was, after all, only the backup quarterback. With any luck, they wouldn't need him and all of the conversation would not matter.

With any luck . . .

Of course, you know how it played out: Peete got hurt early and Cunningham had to play three quarters. He scrambled around as best he could but all the team did was punt, and punt, and punt some more (except for a late, meaningless touchdown). After the game, it was left to owner Jeffrey Lurie, of all people, to admit the obvious: that the game plan had been greatly pared down because Cunningham was unprepared. It was the last game he played for the Eagles.

Eighteen years later, it would have played out differently. Between digital technology and private jet travel, no one would ever be as unprepared for that game as Cunningham was. But the debate would continue today - especially in football and most especially with a quarterback. It wasn't that long ago that Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco missed the birth of a child to play in a game.

But the standard is simple. To repeat: Whether the player stays or goes, whatever the father and mother decide to do is the correct decision, and that's that.


On Twitter: @theidlerich

Blog: philly.com/DNL

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