EDITOR’S NOTE: Read more on Doug Cunningham and what friends and former teammates have to say about the former LHS, Ole Miss, and
San Francisco star in next week’s edition of the Winston County Journal. Those who have a particular story they would like to share can contact Austin Bishop at 601-938-2471.
By Austin Bishop
The Winston County Journal
Louisville native Doug Cunningham, called by some the greatest punt returner they have ever seen, is one of seven standouts who will be inducted into the Mississippi Sorts Hall of Fame on Friday, July 25.
“In my mind, this is as accomplished and as diverse a group of Hall of Famers as I have ever seen,” said Rick Cleveland, executive director of the MSHOF. “I think it’s important to note that all seven are from small-town Mississippi. They should serve as inspiration to youngsters — boys and girls no matter their background — across the Magnolia State.”
Joining Cunningham in the 2014 class are former Ole Miss and New Orleans Saints football standout Deuce McAllister, former Alcorn State and Tennessee Titans quarterback Steve McNair, former MSU head men’s basketball coach Richard Williams, former Olympic Gold basketball medalist Ruthie Bolton, and track and field sprinter Calvin Smith.
During his three-year career at Ole Miss Cunningham averaged nearly nine yards every time he touched the ball. He went on to play for the San Francisco 49ers for eight years.
Cleveland, who is a longtime sports columnist in Mississippi and the son of former University of Southern Mississippi sports information director Ace Cleveland, remembers in particular a performance Cunningham put on in 1966.
“I was 13-years-old and It was the first time Southern Miss had played Ole Miss in the modern era,” Cleveland noted. “Southern led 7-0 midway through the fourth quarter and had to punt the ball to Ole Miss. Doug brought it back 77 yards for a touchdown. It was one of the greatest runs I ever ever seen. In fact (legendary author) John Grisham wrote about it years later.”
USM then went on to fumble the ball away in the last two minutes of the game and Doug went on to score the winning touchdown.
“As I told him (Cunningham) later, I was 13-years-old and it was the first time a grown up had ever broken my heart.”
Here is an excerpt from Grisham’s story about that legendary punt return:
“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 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. Just a casual little lateral of the ball, as if he had been in the end zone before.”
Tickets to the annual induction reception and banquet to be held at the Hilton Jackson on County Line Road are $100 each and can be purchased by contacting the MSHOF at 1-800-280-FAME or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The reception begins at 5:30 p.m., with the induction banquet set to take place at 7 p.m.
There will be an opportunity for the public to meet the inductees from 9:30 a.m.-11 a.m. on Saturday, July 26 at the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame Museum at 1152 Lakeland Drive in Jackson. The only cost is the normal museum admission price of $5.
There will also be a Drawdown of Champions beginning at 6:30 p.m. at the museum at a cost of $50 per person. Inductees, as well as other standout athletes from Mississippi’s past will be at the event. There will be an opportunity to bid on autograph sports memorable, as well as win cash.