Class of 2014: Cunningham could flat-out fly

This is the second in a series of columns about your Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame’s Class of 2014.

Cleveland

 

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I consider Doug Cunningham a good friend, but I didn’t know him back in 1966 when he broke my 13-year-old heart. This was at Hemingway Stadium in Oxford in the first modern day meeting between Ole Miss and Southern Miss. Understand, I had grown up at USM. Both my parents worked there. The heavily favored Rebels trailed USM 7-0 well into the fourth quarter. It would have been a monumental upset. Then Southern punted to No. 22 for the Rebels, Doug Cunningham. You can read best-selling author John Grisham describe what happened below…

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Doug Cunningham and Steve Spurrier were rookie teammates together with the San Francisco 49ers. Spurrier, now known as “the ol’ ball coach,” remembers Cunningham fondly.

When we all first saw Doug run, nobody on the team could believe how fast he was,” Spurrier said.

 

Doug Cunningham

Cunningham used that blazing speed, coupled with shifty, open-field moves, to become one of the best running backs and kick returners in Ole Miss history.

In a brilliant three-year varsity career at Ole Miss as a wingback, tailback and kick returner, Cunningham averaged better than nine yards for every time he touched the ball.

He was a big play waiting to happen.

In 1966, Ole Miss trailed Southern Miss 7-0 in the fourth quarter. USM had never beaten Ole Miss but seemed well on its way. Then, USM made the mistake of punting to Cunningham. Years later, John Grisham wrote about Cunningham’s return:

…the Rebel return man, Doug Cunningham, No. 22, sprang from nowhere, took the ball, and was immediately surrounded by white jerseys. He was hit, broke a tackle, hit again, shook himself free, darted one way then the other, and suddently emerged from a pile of humanity with his legs pumping, his knees high in the air, his hips twisting, and two blockers in front of him. The crowd erupted.

Cunningham cut to the sideline… and hit the afterburners. For a few brief seconds, time that is still frozen in my memory, Doug Cunningham galloped toward the north end zone with unmatched speed, and crossed the goal line all alone. He circled by a fence, long since removed, and nonchalantly flipped the ball to the official. No bodily gyrations. No ripping off his helmet so the world could see him. No showy prayer. No struggling or somersaults. Just a casual little lateral of the ball, as if he had been in the end zone before.

Cunningham had, of course, been in the end zone many, many times before and would be many more times afterward. He starred first at Louisville High School in his hometown, then at Ole Miss and then with the 49ers.

He was a sixth round draft choice of the 49ers, and, as a rookie, was nicknamed “Goober” because his teammates thought he sounded like Goober in the Andy Griffith TV show.

Sports Illustrated’s Ron Fimrite, then a young San Francisco sports writer, described Cunningham’s performance in a game against the Minnesota Cikings in which Cunningham had a 64-yard run from scrimmage and a 57-yard punt return. Wrote Fimrite:

It was not just the length of thes runs but the manner in which they were accomplished that endeared the little man to us all. Both were fraught with danger along the way. Cunningham spun, dodged, bounced off tacklers, then fled for his life… It was just damned good drama…

Cunningham was always as popular off the field as on it. He was elected Colonel Rebel, the equivalent of Mr. Ole Miss, as a senior.

Said Spurrier, “Doug is one of the really good ones. What a great guy!”

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Next: Deuce McAllister.

 

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