When I was a kid I wanted to be Randall Cunningham. Now, if you didn’t grow up in Philadelphia, or you aren’t a big time fan of professional football since the 1980s, then you probably have absolutely no clue who Randall Cunningham is, who he was, and why I wanted to be him so much. To a young kid growing up in Southwest Philly, he was the definition of a man, even though we never met and I had no idea what his private life was like. But I felt like I knew him.
Every Sunday afternoon in the fall and early winter I would see him on television. I would sit riveted, waiting to see what he would do next, holding my breath, waiting to let it out in a whoosh when he would tuck that ball under his arm and take off for the end zone.
He was fluid, like a dancer except his leotard was padded and he wore a helmet instead of ribbons in his hair. A tall man with unabashed grace, who played a high contact sport but who seemed to avoid it more often than not, Randall Cunningham was the quarterback of the Philadelphia Eagles. He was master of the field, but even more than that. When I watched Randall play, it was like watching a maestro conducting an orchestra.
It was beautiful.
My uncle brought me to an Eagles game once. I remember it well because it was like my birthday and Christmas wrapped up into one. It was at Veterans’ Stadium, that old edifice in South Philly where the Eagles and the Phillies played back then, and the atmosphere was electric. People were outside tailgating, wearing Cunningham replica jerseys as they used their car radiators and engines to cook their food. I saw them and realized we were all the same.
Then we were inside the Vet. Our seats were at the 50-yard line, about 30 rows behind the Eagles’ player bench. I craned my neck to see Randall standing in front of that bench for the National Anthem, his hand pressed firmly on top of his heart, in the exact same pose as me, and I smiled. Because it wasn’t just about him. It wasn’t just because I idolized the man. It was because he represented so much more to me.
To me, Randall Cunningham was freedom, the sense that there was more to life, more potential in existence than just living in the ghetto and “getting by.” There was possibility, like the long strides his legs took when he decided to run out of the pocket to pick up the first down. There was excitement in growing up and moving on, in realizing that the sky was the limit and I could do anything I wanted. Even if what I wanted wasn’t quite what was intended for me by others.
Randall Cunningham was so much more than just a figurehead, though. He too was still evolving at the time. And that game was a real sign of the constant shifting because he too was getting older. I could see it plain as day in the third quarter as I watched him bypass a chance to run in favor of throwing a short pass to Chris Carter. It caught the defense off guard because he had been running in those situations all game to that point. I saw him smile as they moved the chains. I smiled too.
Just like Randall.