RIP: Doug Cunningham and Jimmy Lear
Posted on: January 16,2015
Today, services were held for two Mississippi Sports Hall of Famers, two great athletes and two great people, Jimmy Lear and Doug Cunningham. They were also two treasured Ole Miss Rebels, both as athletes and students. A measure of the respect people had for them is that both were elected Colonel Rebel, the equivalent of Mr. Ole Miss. I was honored today to deliver a eulogy for Doug Cunningham, a 2014 inductee into the MSHoF. The eulogy follows…
I am Rick Cleveland, director of your Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and,
blessed to be a good friend of Doug and Allen Cunningham. I am so deeply honored to be asked to say a few words here today. But I’ve got to tell you: if you had told me 49 years ago that I would be doing this here today I would have told you that you were crazy.
The first time I ever saw Doug Cunningham in person was almost half a century ago — and he broke my heart. I was 13 years old and if I had had a gun, I might have shot him. You see, I had grown up in Hattiesburg on the campus of USM. In 1966 Ole Miss and Southern played for the first time in the modern era. I guess we can still call 1966 the modern era, can’t we? At any rate, Ole Miss was a huge favorite. But Southern actually led the game 7 to nothing until well into the fourth quarter. People of a certain age – my age – know what an upset that would have been.
But with just a few minutes to play, USM lined up to punt and stupidly punted the ball to Doug Cunningham. Doug was immediately surrounded by Southern players. What happened next was recorded for the ages by a pretty good writer you may have heard of. John Grisham.
Wrote Grisham, “…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, was hit again, shook himself free, darted one way then the other, and suddenly 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 strutting or somersaults. Just a casual little lateral of the ball, as if he had been in the end zone before.
Boy, that John Grisham really can write. And Doug really could run. And as all of us here today know: Doug had been there before countless times at Louisville High School and Ole Miss. He would be there many more times at both Ole Miss and the NFL. As Steve Spurrier put it, Doug Cunningham was the fastest white guy I ever saw. But here’s the deal: What Grisham wrote was in many ways a pinpoint accurate portrayal of Doug as a human being, not just an athlete. He was courageous. Over his years he caught hundreds of punts with big, fast, strong people charging down the field hoping to maim and mangle him with all the force they could muster. You ask me, that’s courage. Doug was dependable. Like he did that day against Southern, Doug came through when you needed him most. He was graceful, but not showy. With Doug, you got no strutting. No dance. Nothing like that. But I’m guessing, if we could have seen behind that facemask, we might have seen that charming Doug Cunningham smile when he tossed that football to the official.
Doug never quite made the Super Bowl, but if a man is judged by the number of friends he has, Doug Cunningham is one of life’s all-time champions. He was belatedly inducted into the Hall of Fame last summer along with Olympic champions, record-setting coaches and athletes. But by far the biggest part of a record crowd was there to pay tribute to Doug Cunningham. It is a measure of Doug’s impact on people that more than 200 people thought they had a personal stake in his induction.
Since Doug’s death, I have been astounded by the number of people who all feel like they have suffered a terrible personal loss. I have heard him described as the best boss they ever had, the best teammate you could ever had, the best playing partner, the best friend, the best brother in law, the best brother AND the best husband.
Sad to say, I have not heard him described as the best golfer. Or the best card player. Nobody could possibly exaggerate quite that much. On the other hand, I’ve never talked to anyone who didn’t enjoy playing golf or poker with Doug — even when he won and they lost. Now then, I believe if Doug had given instructions for this service today, he would have wanted us to smile, maybe even laugh, and enjoy the memories.
Yesterday, I ate lunch with Ben Nelson, Richard Beneke, Al Keveryn, Dean Binge, and Freddie Roberts — all close friends of Doug’s — at Bill’s Greek Tavern. My goodness at the stories that were told, many I would never repeat here. Doug would have loved it. In fact, I’m guessing he did. We laughed so often and so loudly I am sure everybody else in the place wondered what in the world was going on.
Somebody told about the poker game during the Easter Flood of 1979. Water was creeping up to the door of Doug’s apartment off of Ridgewood Road. Doug was way behind. The more Doug lost, the harder the rain got, and the closer the water got. The others kept saying Doug, we’ve got to get out of here. Doug, pretty soon, we’re going to need an ark. Doug kept wanting to play just one more hand. Finally, at dawn, with water seeping in, Doug won a big hand, got even and they all left, Doug included.
Somebody else told the story about Doug being asked about the hardest he ever got hit in football. Doug said he was running around end one afternoon against the Kansas City Chiefs when he ran slap dab into Hall of Fame linebacker Willie Lanier. Y’all remember Willie Lanier? He outweighed Doug, by, oh, say, 50 pounds. Doug described it this way, “I ran into Willie Lanier on a Sunday afternoon. The next thing I knew it was Thursday.” Only Doug could make a joke about getting hit that hard.
Somebody else told about Doug talking about playing against the great Dick Butkus, the biggest, baddest, most -feared linebacker of them all. Just the mere word — Butkus — sent a shiver down the spine of running backs and quarterbacks everywhere. Again, Doug was hilarious. “There was one day Butkus hit me so hard and so often, I was scared he was going to hurt himself.”
Richard Beneke told about a time, long before Doug married the beautiful Allen, when Doug went to dinner with three of Richard’s sisters, all gorgeous women. Each was smitten with Doug. Said Richard, “Doug charmed all three of my sisters. Each one of them thought she was the one.”
Ben told about the time he was headed to San Francisco to officiate a PGA Golf Tournament. Doug, who spent years in Frisco, told Ben to be sure to go to the famous Tadich Grill, a San Francisco landmark, extremely popular and more than 160 years old. Of course, Ben went. The place was packed and Ben thought he would never get seated.
So Ben told the maitre d’, “I don’t suppose it would help if I told you I was from Mississippi and Doug Cunningham sent me here.” And suddenly, it was as if Ben was the President of the U.S. or the King of England. Said Ben, “It was as if the Red Sea had parted – just for me.”
Doug touched people that way. I remember when I moved to Jackson in 1979, and began to hang out at Live Oaks Golf Club, at Gridley’s and at Swenson’s. Doug always made me feel welcome. He always made me smile. He often made me laugh. And he always made me want to be more like him. I don’t know what more praise you can give a man than that. I am like all you out there, I loved Doug Cunningham. I am going to miss him, but I will forever cherish the memories, even that first one from 1966. For as I have learned in 50 years of sports writing, it’s not so much about the teams, the institutions or the colors of the uniforms.
It’s about the people and Doug Cunningham was just plain good people.
Lear quarterbacked the 1952 Rebels to a 21-14 victory over No. 3 ranked Maryland in 1952, which was the biggest victory in Ole Miss history at the time and helped put the Rebels on the national football map.
A native of Greenwood, Lear led the SEC in passing in both 1951 and 1952. That ’52 team finished the regular season 8-0-2 and then lost to Georgia Tech in the Sugar Bowl.
Although just 5 feet, 11 inches tall, he was equally effective as a runner and a passer. He showed it that day against Maryland when the Terps came to Mississippi having won 22 consecutive games over three seasons. Lear accounted for all three touchdowns, while also handling the punting and placekicking duties.
A measure of Lear’s abilities: Maryland had the nation’s leading defense coming into that game, allowing only 156 yards per game. Lear accounted for 275 himself on 231 yards passing and 44 rushing.
The late Wayne Thompson, writing for The Clarion-Ledger, began his game story this way: “King Jimmy Lear, playing the greatest game of his brilliant career, led the Ole Miss Rebels to the gridiron heights this sun-kissed Saturday afternoon.”
Lear was a humble man, known throughout the Delta as a kind, Southern gentleman. He often deflected credit for his football success.
“We had a great group of players, not just one or two,” Lear once said. “The camaraderie of that team is what made it special.”
Lear was more than a football player at Ole Miss. He was a sprinter in track and field and also played baseball and golf. He was elected Colonel Rebel, the equivalent of Mr. Ole Miss, his senior year.
Lear was inducted into the Ole Miss Athletics Hall of Fame in 1988 and into the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame in 1991. He won the Distinguished American Award from the National Football Foundation in 2005.