By Austin Bishop
The Winston County Journal
On Friday, Louisville native Doug Cunningham will be inducted into the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame because of his exploits on the
football field, but his close friends insist that it’s how he conducts himself off the field that makes him the man he is.
“He is just a jewell of a human being,” said longtime friend Mike Peterson. “He is just a very good person who had a God-given ability to run a football. Even after he became successful he was just a regular guy. It never went to his head and never thought he was special, even though he was.”
Dave Fair, who was a sophomore when Cunningham — who graduated in 1963 — was a senior, says the former Ole Miss and San Francisco 49er standout is a genuine a person as you will ever find.
“I went into the (military) and was stationed in San Francisco at Treasure Island when he was with the 49ers,” Fair said. “He got me tickets to the game and took me out a couple times with some of the other players. He didn’t think of it as a big deal, but to me it was important. He never forgot about the people he knew and never thought of himself as any better than anyone else.”
Fair said home is important to Cunningham.
“He is Winston County and Louisville and he represents them and the whole state of Mississippi well,” he said. “He always has.”
Cunningham, who now lives in Jackson with his wife Allen, is one of seven athletes going into the MSHoF in 2014. He is being joined by 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.
While Cunningham — one of six children of Julian and Margaret Cunningham — was known as a big playmaker at Louisville High School, Ole Miss and in the NFL, he almost didn’t get a chance to show his skills on the football field.
An automobile accident when he was in the eighth grade fractured vertebrae in his back, forcing him to stay at Rush Hospital in Meridian for a week in a full cast.
“He didn’t even know if he was going to be able to play or not,” said former LHS teammate and longtime friend Moe Yarbrough. “He played very sparingly as a sophomore and a little more as a junior, but he really came on to the scene in the spring game his junior year.”
Yarbrough gives a lot of the credit for Cunningham’s ability to the man’s natural talent and the persistence of LHS head football coach Fred Morris.
“Coach Morris stayed on him,” Yarbrough said. “He saw something special in him and just wouldn’t let it go.”
Yarbrough remembers one instance in particular when Cunningham had to run extra sprints after practice.
“I don’t remember exactly how many he had to run, probably 25 or so,, but he had only run 22 or 23 and then went into the dressing room without finishing,” Yarbrough said. “But Doug’s father (Julian, who was also the superintendent of education at the time) had been counting and let coach Morris know he hadn’t finished. So Doug had to get dressed again and go back out and finish his sprints.”
Morris chuckled at the mention of the story.
“Douglas was a great game performer, but he didn’t like to practice too much,” he said with a laugh. “Physical mistakes never bothered me, but I never did really appreciate mental mistakes and sometimes I would make them run.
“Doug had a particularly bad day in practice and I had him running sprints,” Morris said. “The truth was, he was tired and I was tired and just ready to go home. So I said ‘Doug, come on in.’ But Julian walked up to me and said ‘Doug’s got three more to run.’ So, I sent him back out and he finished them up.”
He said most casual sports fans in the state probably don’t realize that Cunningham wasn’t even really a running back in high school. He was mostly played at flanker or wingback.
“I was afraid to run him 20 or 25 plays because he had gotten hurt when he was younger (the automobile accident) and I didn’t want to risk injuring him,” Morris said. “So we used him all kinds of creative ways.
“He was a little exceptional, not of the ordinary,” Morris said. He is one of the finest running backs that ever played in Mississippi and is a guy you would be glad to pay admission to see.”
Morris recalled one game in particular his senior season when Cunningham took over a game. Louisville was trailing Philadelphia 3-0 at the end of the first quarter and that had LHS assistant coach Bud Turner particularly concerned.
“(Turner) looked at me and said ‘coach, we are not going to score and they are going to beat us,’” Morris said. “I said ‘Bud, you see that guy standing out there getting ready to field this punt. If we don’t do anything else, we are just going to give the ball to him every time and see what he an do.’ About that time they punted the ball and by the time the play was over he had laid the ball down in the end zone for a touchdown. I just looked at Bud and said ‘See, I told you there wasn’t anything to worry about.’”
Cunningham’s amazing ability to return kicks is something that sticks in the mind of his brother-in-law Steve Hindman. As a sophomore Hindman, who went to Newton High School, played against Cunningham and the Wildcats.
The Tigers of Newton High School kicked off to Louisville and Cunningham returned it for a touchdown. “Then we ran the ball three plays and we punted it back to Doug,” Hindman said. “He ran to the left, ran to the right, ran to the left, and then ran into the end zone for a touchdown. We got the ball again, ran three plays and had to punt. Doug caught it and ran to the left, ran to the right, ran to the left and then ran for a touchdown.
“From that point on we never punted again,” Hindman said. “Our coach said he would rather just run four plays and give it back to them than have to punt to him (Cunningham) again.”
While the football exploits of Cunningham could go on and on, Hindman reiterated that the core of Cunningham was much deeper than a game played on a field.
“He is just a really, really good person — a good friend, and a good guy,” Hindman said. “He will anything in the world for you and has a big heart.
“When he is your friend, you have got a real friend.”
Tickets to the Hall of Fame banquet are still available at $100 each by contacting the Mississippi Hall of Fame 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.
“In my opinion, he should have been in the Hall of Fame a long time ago,” Morris said. “I hope everybody in that town (Louisville) who can, will go and help honor Douglas,” said Morris. “He always loved Winston County and he deserves it. He’s one of a kind.”