Scrambling for cover

Randall Cunningham wants to be a backup. Really. But the one thing he's never outrun is quarterback controversy.

If you squint hard enough, it's 1990 again--only the affluent have cell phones, George Bush The Original resides at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, and Randall Cunningham is back scrambling in a winged helmet and ghastly green Philadelphia Eagles uniform. He is unpredictable from the moment the ball is snapped, deciding at the last second whether to blister a 70-yard pass downfield or tuck the football and run in a loping, leaping fashion--run better than any quarterback has before or since.

But you can only squint and daydream for so long before the heat, insane even by Wichita Falls' standards, jars you back to reality. You're at an early training-camp practice, and the only place Cunningham--a.k.a. Troy Aikman's backup of the moment--plans to run toward is the sidelines to escape the oppressive weather. The sun beats down unmercifully, leering from a clear, baby-blue sky. It chars the grass, turning the flat, unremarkable landscape--the town has all the charm of a 7-Eleven hot dog--into a browning griddle.

The fans, though, ignore the heat. The stands are pretty well filled considering it's just the second session of the second day of camp. The crowd is a shock to those getting paid to be here. The Cowboys supporters have arrived of their own accord, furthering the theory that temperatures exceed the average IQ in this particular part of North Texas.

Aikman has come under fire in recent years as fans forget his three Super Bowl victories. If he struggles during the season, some fans will surely call for Cunningham--who was a Pro Bowler after the 1998 season.
Aikman has come under fire in recent years as fans forget his three Super Bowl victories. If he struggles during the season, some fans will surely call for Cunningham--who was a Pro Bowler after the 1998 season.
Aikman has come under fire in recent years as fans forget his three Super Bowl victories.
Gary Lawson
Aikman has come under fire in recent years as fans forget his three Super Bowl victories.

While the fans brave the heat to watch practice, scorching their asses on metal bleachers, Cunningham participates in drills with his newest friends, the guys who wear helmets adorned with a navy blue Dallas star outlined in white--an emblem the backup quarterback was taught to despise during his All-Pro years in Philadelphia.

But that was a long time ago, and this Randall isn't that Randall, he says. Funny--even without squinting, he sure looks like that guy. His legs are still long and slender, his frame still lean and taut. He has the same relaxed look he had when he was "The Ultimate Weapon" (a nickname from his heyday). Even the wispy, familiar mustache--the one trimmed so closely, it looks like an optical illusion--remains. And the smile, the charming one that crinkles ever so slightly in one corner, reminds you of the freakishly talented signal caller he once was.

But no matter how hard you try, you can't convince Cunningham to flash back to yesterday, much less to his glory days of the early '90s. He only looks forward now. Because even though he was once considered the most dangerous quarterback in football, the past wasn't always kind to the 37-year-old, and he'd just as soon leave it be. Cunningham was always the center of attention. Always. Whether because of nimble footwork--he's the league's all-time leading rusher among quarterbacks--or unbelievably long throws or his propensity to keep reporters guessing with surprise antics and surreal quotes, Cunningham couldn't avoid being the topic of conversation.

Which, of course, is why he's here, sizzling in Wichita Falls, and not in Florida or Michigan or some other NFL training camp--many of which would make him the No. 1 quarterback. He chose to continue his career in this manner, as a backup with his onetime rivals, because Dallas offered a shot at something he's never before been able to sustain in his professional life: peace.

After practice, comfortably away from gawking eyes, Cunningham slowly--in a soft, barely audible tone--assures you that the spotlight and its attendant commotion aren't something he wants anymore. Innocuous or not, he doesn't want upheaval in any form. He says he's through with the sensationalism that goes with being the man. He likes to believe he's found a niche in Dallas that won't require much beyond wearing a baseball hat and carrying a clipboard.

"I'm a guy who likes to know how things are," he explains. "I need to know my role. I know my role here: It's to back Troy up.

"I've always told people I like Dallas the city. I told my wife. We've even talked about buying a house before, just a small little place. But I'm happy, my wife is happy, my family is happy."

Maybe he's right about all this, about effectively positioning himself as the strong, silent type, out of the way of controversy. Then again, maybe you will hit the lottery or start dating a Penthouse pet.

Good intentions or no, Cunningham has history working against him. He has long been a catalyst of controversy, whether he was the starting quarterback or the backup, on the East Coast or parts up north. Try as he might, in good times and bad, Cunningham has never been able to slink unnoticed into the shadows. And there's no reason to think that, in a town where some people actually called for Steve Walsh to replace Troy Aikman, controversy won't come during this season too.

"I don't think [Cunningham] intends or sets out to make waves," says longtime Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Bill Lyon. "I think it just happens. I don't think Randall's malignant; I think he's benign. And I don't think he's trying to be a lightning rod, but it seems like it's almost natural. It's almost as if there are forces out there beyond his control."

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