Scrambling for cover
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.
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."
Cunningham doesn't seem too worried about all that. He intends to enjoy the tranquility he's so sure he has found. His is the unabashed faith of a believer.
But you're cynical. You wonder: Why should this time be any different?
As with most inquiries, you'd like to go right to the source for a direct answer. With Randall Cunningham, it's not that simple. Not because he's reluctant to help--on the contrary, he is extremely accommodating--but because his responses, at times, don't strike the target you've set up. Or, for that matter, any target within a hundred-mile radius. Sometimes they're jumbled, confusing, nonsensical.
After a conference call last summer, Philadelphia Daily News Eagles beat writer Marcus Hayes commented that things hadn't changed much since Cunningham left town, noting "he proved as able as ever to entertain with his often unintentional comedy and head-scratching insights." Cunningham's not stupid--at a time when you practically need a degree in quantum physics to navigate the salary cap, he's one of a handful of NFL players bright enough to negotiate his own contracts--but he does have a way of confounding interviewers. During his days with the Eagles, before he got married to his wife, Felicity, he told reporters that then-coach Buddy Ryan "is the husband, and we are the wife. We have to do what he says. That's the way it is."
A few years later, after getting benched, he was asked his reaction to sitting and said he thought "the whole world is confused right now. We have a new president. The economy is all messed up. You know, earthquakes, hurricanes. I think everybody should get into the Bible right now and do what God wants us to do, because this world could be ending very soon, and my main goal is to go to heaven and not hell.''
To be sure, Cunningham is a riddle at best, a complex individual who's unlike anybody you've ever met. Sometimes, you're not sure whether he's having fun at your expense, muddling your notes with verbal gauze to get a few kicks, or whether he plainly gets lost in thought. Either way, he's difficult to get a read on.
Often, it's because he answers every question as if he's conducting a whispering sermon. Whether Cunningham's praising His name or quoting Scripture with remarkable accuracy, the Almighty regularly works his way into Randall-speak. In that regard, he's not much different from the average follower. What separates him and, for example, former teammate Reggie White is that he has no qualms about crediting the heavens for his return to the game (he sat out the 1996 season).
By doing so, by invoking God in the course of discussing his professional decisions--suggesting, basically, that He is an agent--Cunningham invites criticism from unbelieving media types. A lot of it.
"Anywhere you're at in life, people are going to look at you and judge what the situation is or what it should be," he says. "I guess that's why God...in the Bible it says not to judge, because ultimately He is the judge."
Even before he found religion, Cunningham was painted as a strange bird. His eccentricity was pointed out from jump. It was never easy for Randall Cunningham, this celebrity thing. Oh, sure, for a good while he embraced it, even became it, but it wasn't something he did well.
The fame was inevitable, of course. When you're 6-foot-4, 215 pounds of gridiron grace, when you can hurl a ball 70 yards the way a child flicks a marble or juke a linebacker with the same fluidity and effortlessness, when you can dazzle in an instant, you might as well walk around with a large neon arrow pointing at your head. But as beloved as Cunningham was in Philadelphia, things didn't always run smoothly. Not with the press, not with one of his head coaches, not with some of the players.
As a second-round pick out of the University of Nevada at Las Vegas in 1985, he underwent a lot of scrutiny. Any player selected that highly would, but he did even more so because fans in Philly doubted the organization, considering its history of poor drafts. They weren't alone. In his book Bringing the Heat, the story of the 1992 Eagles, Mark Bowden writes that the in-the-know crowd, especially talent evaluators, were also skeptical: "When he threw the ball, his body uncoiled like a rope, a loose, smooth, wave action that began at his heels and concluded with a whipping motion at the end of a long, rubber arm, the way a Disney cartoonist might draw it. The throwing style was so unique that hidebound scouts--their minds patterned to seek out Unitas, Namath, Marino--took one look at it and said, The kid'll never make it. Throws like a fuckin' windmill. Takes him too long to release the ball."
In the end, they were wrong--Cunningham worked plenty on the timing of his delivery so that it's now more than acceptable. But even after developing into one of the most versatile quarterbacks ever, after winning countless awards and the admiration of national followers and analysts, local criticism and drama plagued him.
Frankly, a lot of that had to do with Cunningham. He was, um, a bit unusual, and his style smacked of arrogance. (The man had gold-tipped shoelaces.) It seemed almost as if there were a direct correlation between the success and the negative attention, and the odd manner in which he handled both: The better he played, the more complaints were raised about his attitude and commitment to the team. The more people made a fuss over him, the more eccentric he became.
"Each year he'd reinvent himself," says Lyon, "and it would invariably be emblazoned on his baseball cap. One of my favorites, I think, was 'Let Randall be Randall.' Each July, he'd appear in his reincarnation."
The one man who got past all that and who protected him from prying media and fans was head coach Buddy Ryan. Ryan may have been born a southern boy, but in reality he couldn't have been more Philly. He was a no-nonsense, blue-collar, roll-up-your-sleeves-and-kick-someone's-ass kind of guy--which was exactly the way the deviants in Veterans Stadium's infamous 700 level (where the rowdiest fans occupy the cheapest seats) romantically pictured themselves. Cantankerous, feisty, fiery, whatever, the vast majority of Eagles fans couldn't get enough Big Bad Buddy. In '89, when Ryan allegedly put a bounty on turncoat placekicker Luis Zendejas, who had left for hated Dallas, well, the portly coach only increased his following.
Ryan's protection of Cunningham was important in that he deflected concerns from fans--and teammates. There was clamoring in the locker room then, where outspoken linebacker Seth Joyner voiced thinly veiled complaints about Cunningham. Ryan's clout defused as much of the ill will as possible. For a little while, anyway.
As with all things Philadelphian--good times there last about as long as the flavor in your gum--Ryan's ability to divert attention from his quarterback came to an abrupt, premature end. Following the 1990 season, Ryan, who was 43-35-1 with the Eagles including three consecutive trips to the playoffs, was axed as head coach.
"Everything was great until Buddy Ryan got fired," Cunningham says, staring blankly, possibly wondering, probably not for the first time, what might have been. "Buddy was my man. I still love Buddy. But everything happens for a reason."
Enter promoted offensive coordinator Rich Kotite, who had arrived a year earlier from the hapless New York Jets. Kotite had his way of doing things: strict, by the book, no frills, no thrills. With Ryan out of the way, Kotite tried to harness Cunningham, who had always succeeded most when freelancing, when making things up as he went along. The new coach promised mundane, safe play-calling. Where Ryan would ask Cunningham for the big play, Kotite routinely asked for the routine. It changed the team's dynamic almost immediately. It was kind of like trying to fix a Porsche that needed a fine-tuning--remember, the Eagles used to be good--with a blowtorch and a sledgehammer.
From there, it got worse for Cunningham. An injury in 1991 sidelined the quarterback for the final 15 games of the season. When he came back a year later, he was benched for parts of two games, replaced by veteran Jim McMahon, a move that created a quarterback controversy and distrust between Cunningham and Kotite. It wasn't his last benching or the last problem between player and coach. During the next three tension-filled years, something surely had to give.
"You know what, going into that last year [when Ray Rhodes had replaced Kotite as head coach], I worked myself as hard as I could work myself to get prepared for the season," he says simply, without a hint of contempt. "And then to get benched [in favor of Rodney Peete], it was kind of like I never had a chance. It was like it was preplanned. That's kind of how I felt last year [in Minnesota]. That's kind of like a sign that God says, 'I'm going to lead you somewhere else now.' But I didn't understand it back then [in Philly].
"I got tired of everything in 1995. That's why I started to, that's part of the reason why I left. I was tired of the game, tired of the fame, tired of the pain. Now, I understand why it's like that. But I think when you have a platform God will lift you up so people know you, so that He can use you. But I took it for granted, and that's when you go through that humbling process. That hurt. That's a hard thing. Anybody who gets humbled knows that."
His solution? Just go. Leave all the complications behind. Cunningham says it was all part of the Lord's plan, a subtle, covert message to get the disheartened quarterback to pack up and move along.
So he did what he does best. He ran.
Funny thing about running--sometimes you manage to find greener pastures. And sometimes you trip and fall face-first.
After the 1995 campaign, at the seasoned age (for a quarterback) of 32, he had decided not to pursue other places of employ, but to retire. Retracing his steps, Cunningham retreated to Las Vegas--Sin City, a curious destination for God to suggest, don't you think?--where he opened a custom marble and granite business. Every so often, if you were dedicated enough, you could find a blurb about Ran-doll (as he was labeled in Bowden's book) in the papers or catch a brief piece on myriad television reports. Basically, though, it was quiet. Unusually quiet, given the previously stormy five seasons.
A full year after banishing himself to trade-labor purgatory, that changed. All of a sudden, working with marble and granite didn't look so appealing to the capricious shopkeeper. There began to be rumblings that Cunningham wasn't happy with his new occupation; that he missed staring down irate, charging defensive linemen. Soon Cunningham was peddling himself--he says it was God's will that brought him out of retirement--on the NFL's open market. Except for one thing: It wasn't so open.
Teams desperately in need of some ability under center passed on the former Eagle, including the always inept Arizona Cardinals, who opted for incompetent Kent Graham and ancient Dave Krieg instead. Meanwhile, as he is wont to do, Cunningham ignored it all as if he didn't notice, electing to pretend as though the world was begging for an audience with his holiness.
"I'll be playing, and I'll be starting," he told Sports Illustrated in 1996. "There are three or four teams that want me to be their starting quarterback."
On April 11, 1997, Cunningham was reborn yet again, this time with the help of the Minnesota Vikings and head coach-vice president of football operations Dennis Green. (Boy, the signals from God must have gotten really crossed up that time. How could He inspire Cunningham to play for a team whose moniker is derived from a bunch of pillaging, whoring murderers? Just beats all logic, doesn't it?) That year, he appeared in a handful of games, some as a starter, most in relief, some even as a punter. Yeah, a punter--Cunningham can do that too. On the whole, it wasn't a terrific encore; he finished with pedestrian numbers (six touchdowns, four interceptions, 71.3 quarterback rating). More intriguing than any stats, you thought at the time, was that he managed to complete an entire year without drawing attention to himself.
It wouldn't last.
Nobody knew it at first, but when Brad Johnson went down with an injury in the second week of the 1998 season, he reopened Cunningham's Pandora's Box. Johnson was Minnesota's starting quarterback before being lost for the year in the fourth quarter of a fateful game in St. Louis. It was a turn of events that would radically alter everyone's perception of the Vikings.
Johnson's replacement was Cunningham, nowthrust back into a spotlight he knew, and loathed, so well. Most onlookers thought nothing of it, figuring Cunningham would trudge through his duties, throw a few senseless interceptions--a habit for which he was knocked in Philadelphia--and then offer some muddled quote when it was over. Really, what else could come from handing Minnesota over to a washed-up, almost-was-but-finally-wasn't quarterback? No one--and don't say you expected it, because you didn't--thought Cunningham would turn in the season he did. He guided the Vikings to the NFC Championship game while throwing for an incredible 3,704 yards on 60.9 percent passing, 34 touchdowns against just 10 picks and a 106.0 QB rating. The performance earned him all sorts of honors, including his fourth trip to Honolulu for the Pro Bowl.
Meanwhile, once again, Cunningham was the center of attention, which made sense because Jerry Bruckheimer couldn't have dreamt up a story that ridiculous. Once again, Cunningham was in demand. ESPN, magazines, and newspapers all lavished praise and lauded Cunningham.
Even though the Vikes didn't make the Super Bowl, falling a field goal short, that was OK by the media--Cunningham and compatriots would just "get 'em next year." Never mind that reproducing such an outstanding season might be difficult. Never mind that offensive coordinator Brian Billick, who Cunningham said had devised the perfect system for his skills, had fled the scene for a head-coaching job with the Baltimore Ravens.
"Everything worked perfectly in '98 because Billick did a good job preparing Randall," says Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune writer Kent Youngblood, who's entering his third season covering the Vikings. "He didn't have to do much reading. After [Billick] left, Randall said to me many times that things wouldn't be the same."
How prescient. Today's media darling is tomorrow's bitch, and six games into last year the wheels had come off the Randall Cunningham bandwagon. Where once Cunningham could do no wrong, he was immediately vilified and scapegoated for the team's slow start. (Sound familiar?) Talk went from "Jeez, that Randall sure can play" to "Jeez, that Randall couldn't play flag football."
What happened next was, if not transparently predictable, eerily reminiscent: Teammates grumbled about his commitment to the team. Questions arose about his ability to perform. He got benched.
Cunningham was jettisoned to the sideline in favor of understudy Jeff George. There were rumors, unconfirmed, that wideout Cris Carter had lobbied to insert George into the starting lineup, and that his moaning set things in motion for Randall's demotion. Cunningham denies it ever happened, saying only "if it did, Cris never said anything to me about it."
Still, once again, it was only a matter of time before something had to give. Once again, as he watched from the sideline for the remainder of the year, things were in disarray.
This past offseason, with George gone to the Washington Redskins, Cunningham was told by Green he could stay on board, take a significant salary cut, and probably be the starting quarterback. Probably, provided second-year man Daunte Culpepper didn't beat him out first. Either that, or he could take his chances and hit the road.
"I've learned to adjust to all situations," Cunningham says in a voice so gentle that the tape recorder barely picks up his words. "I'm not someone who's a proud person. I'm honored to be a person of God, but I'm not a prideful person. God got rid of that in 1986. I've learned to be a person who desires much knowing that much is desired of you.
"I mean, I wasn't happy with [how things worked out], but I mean I can't turn around and be a jealous person, because I wasn't the one with the authority. Coach Green had the authority; those are the decisions he made."
Incapable of evading the spotlight once more, Randall Cunningham made a decision, albeit with the help of the Almighty, of course.
He bolted. Again.
This time around, he knows his role, so things are going to be different. The words resonate in your ears while you watch practice at Midwestern State University. Just then, he takes a short drop, pats the ball once for rhythm, and feathers a beautiful, arching pass down the right sideline, where the Rocket hauls in a perfect spiral 40 yards away. Cunningham flashes that enchanting grin. Looks pretty happy. Looks like he belongs. In the background, everyone oohs and aahs and, for a moment, you feel silly for doubting his chances to acclimate without drumming up some type of publicly noticed conflict.
Then you look behind him, at two strapping men who play the same position, and you don't feel so silly anymore. All you feel is sympathy, because you have a hunch it's going to get all kinds of difficult around here for Cunningham. Probably for everyone, for that matter. Certainly for Paul Justin.
Justin is 6-foot-4, 211 pounds of sandy blond hair and muscles. In his sixth season in the league out of Arizona State, he is the prototypical drop-back quarterback, a read-and-react type who would have immediately endeared himself to a guy like Kotite. Which is to say, he's the kind of backup the Cowboys have used for years, a breathing contingency plan against Troy Aikman's going down. Number 1 is hurt? No problem, we'll make due with 1A for the time being.
So it made sense for America's Team to woo the former St. Louis Rams second fiddle when Jason Garrett departed for the New York Giants. Justin came willingly, because who can resist a pitch from one of the most famous franchises in all of sports? Who wouldn't want $500,000 to back up Aikman and stare at a few scantily clad, internationally known cheerleaders?
For Justin, things were working out fine. He'd made it. Until Jerry Jones decided he didn't want his backup to be option 1A--he wanted it to be option 7Z, something altogether different.
Hello, Randall Cunningham.
While Justin was merrily preparing for mini-camp and points beyond, Jones heard Cunningham was looking for a new team and wasted no time. And why would he? The man needed a second-string quarterback, silly.
What's that? He already had one, you say? Pish, posh, mere details.
"At the time we signed Paul, Randall Cunningham was not available," Jones said through his PR people. (Come on, the man is too busy to be bothered by the Observer.) "When he become available, we looked at it as another way to upgrade our team."
So began the brief courtship between Cunningham and the Cowboys. Jones contacted him while both were in Las Vegas. (Cunningham was there to receive an award.) The very next day Cunningham visited with the Dallas higher-ups and, three months after inking Justin, the 'Boys had a second backup QB. (How 'bout them deceitful bastards, eh Paul?)
"Everybody is excited to have Randall Cunningham with this ball club," says first-year head coach Dave Campo during his daily training camp press conference. "And that includes our football team, because our team has had direct results of Randall Cunningham over the years with what he's been able to do to us."
According to Campo, the staff analyzed his five starts from a year ago and weighed the risks. "We felt very comfortable that he had not lost the skills we had seen in him before," the coach continues. "We've got a starter. And we know that Randall knows his role, and Randall is going to approach that backup role in a professional way."
Music to Cunningham's ears. He could have gotten more money in Tampa Bay or Detroit, but that would have meant possible quarterback controversies, what with inexperienced Shaun King and Charlie Batch running those teams, respectively. And, hey, that's not what he wanted. He'd been there and done that. He wanted to know his role. He wanted serenity, which is pretty comical, because there isn't a bigger annual media circus than Jerry's Kids.
A few weeks from now, Campo and Jones will have to make a decision about Justin, one that could leave a man who was once slated for the No. 2 slot on the depth chart without a job. Even though it wasn't his fault, Randall Cunningham will be the reason. So much for not rocking the boat.
"Aw, man, it's cool," he counters. "I just had lunch with [Justin]. Paul has been around, he's an experienced person. You know, he's just like me; he wants to get his shot. I don't do [bad blood] with any of the players. If there's a situation with someone who doesn't get along with me, I still treat them the way I want to be treated."
Justin agrees, saying there are no hard feelings, that it's all part of the business, whatever happens. But when it comes to matters of employment and financial security--to stay on, Justin might have to take a pay cut, because there aren't too many third stringers pulling down 500 Gs a year--aren't there always hard feelings? If not toward each other, toward someone?
Thing is, potentially, the Justin situation could be the least of Cunningham's worries. What if Aikman, who has long been underappreciated around these parts, struggles initially? What if the boneheads on talk radio begin bashing him? What if their legions of minions follow suit, begging for Cunningham to shed his ball cap and snap on his helmet? Or, what if No. 8 falls prey to injury, which has happened once or twice, hasn't it? What if No. 7 fills in and performs well? What then?
Unfortunately for Cunningham, he'd be back in a position with which he's well acquainted--a position he'd rather not be in anymore. He has no desire to be the star, the hero. Luckily for now, as far as he's concerned, it's all hypothetical.
"I'm just part of the team," Cunningham says happily, politely. "I just want to fit in."
You believe him because his eyes beg you to, because he knows how hard it will be if he doesn't fit in. And you want it to work out because, when it comes down to it, Cunningham is one of the few professional athletes you don't want to choke to unconsciousness for his hubris.
But you wanted it to work in Minnesota and Philadelphia before that. You wanted Cunningham to handle the rigors of celebrity with the polish of, say, John Elway or Emmitt Smith. For one reason or another, that's never happened. There have always been forces out there steering him toward some type of strife, as if the Fates were watching from a distance, laughing their fool heads off.
In the end, you're a lot like Cunningham, helpless to do anything but hope against hope that his fortunes will change. But you watch Paul Justin fight for his job and Troy Aikman get disparaged by ignorant critics and Jerry Jones stir a smoldering, volatile pot, and you wonder about Randall Cunningham's chances for peace.
You wonder, again and again, how this time could possibly be any different.
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