American Football: Veteran Viking a step away from history

A change of attitude has seen the rebirth of Randall Cunningham
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A DECADE ago, he was one of the most exciting young quarterbacks in the game. Two years ago, he appeared to be finished with professional sport, disillusioned and frustrated by a career which had promised so much yet delivered so little. Now, at the age of 36, Randall Cunningham is poised on the threshold of his first Super Bowl appearance. If the Minnesota Vikings prevail against the Atlanta Falcons tonight, as is widely anticipated, he will have completed a transformation that transcends mere playing ability.

The contrasts between the brash young quarterback who played for the Philadelphia Eagles in the late 1980s and the wiser, humbler veteran who has skilfully guided the Vikings to the highest season points total in NFL history could not be greater.

In his early career, Cunningham overflowed with the follies of youth; arrogant to the point of insufferability, convinced of his own greatness, and a self-absorption which strained the tolerance levels of team-mates and friends. Cunningham had the ability to throw the ball, an essential commodity for any quarterback, but seemed happier holding on to it himself.

When put under pressure, he would simply take off and run. During his 11 seasons in Philadelphia, Cunningham scrambled for more than 4,500 yards. No other quarterback has ever run so far, so often, nor to such little purpose. Most offensive schemes require the quarterback to either hand the ball to a running back, or throw it to a receiver. Running with it himself is mostly a last resort, a sign that something has gone wrong.

Admittedly, much was wrong with those Eagles teams, but Cunningham never changed. He would run and run until, at the end of the 1995 season, he ran himself out of the league. He returned to his native Las Vegas, where he set up a kitchen and bathroom decorating business, and discovered that he missed what he had once had.

"Have you ever tried cutting black granite? Believe me, it's hard work," he said. "Getting up at six in the morning to fill up a truck with tile and marble and granite? And taking that stuff to the crew and doing the drilling? And being on your knees in someone's house cutting marble? Let me tell you something. It makes you appreciate anything you have."

Meanwhile, the Vikings were looking for veteran cover for their quarterback, Brad Johnson, who had proved his potential during a spell with the London Monarchs in 1995, but who also had a history of injury problems. The team's coach, Dennis Green, nominated Cunningham, a decision greeted with considerable scepticism by his offensive co-ordinator, Brian Billick.

"I was waiting to hear something I didn't like, waiting to see if it was the same Randall as before," he recalled of their first meeting. "The self-serving, all those things, but the changed person was the one I met in Las Vegas. The calm and the focus of what he wanted soon became apparent."

Cunningham admitted: "I had been a Christian since 1987, but I was a hypocrite for a lot of the time. I was built up to be the superstar, and I was living up to that. I was doing it for man, not for God."

When Johnson broke a leg in the second week of the season, Cunningham stepped in, and was brilliant. His new-found humility was evident when he announced that he was merely holding things together until Johnson's return, but when the luckless former Monarch was healthy again, Cunningham had made the position his own.

Minnesota won 15 of their 16 regular-season games, scoring 556 points. Admittedly, they are blessed with quality performers, including the receivers Cris Carter and Randy Moss and the running back Robert Smith, but if the Vikings are an orchestra full of virtuoso artists, Cunningham is the conductor.

"The poise, the control of emotions," said his team-mate Jerry Ball, who had opposed Cunningham many times during the Philadelphia years. "The deliberateness of what he's trying to do. Staying in the pocket and not running like he used to. He's a completely different quarterback."

Billick said: "We've asked him to drop back and go through a progression of receivers. We've asked him to be smart, to make reads and make plays within the system. It's what a lot of people told me he wouldn't be able to do, and it's exactly what he's done."

The result is that Cunningham has completed 61 per cent of his passes for 3,704 yards, 34 touchdowns and just 10 interceptions, statistically the eighth best return in the game's history. The man who once took off running at any opportunity has done so 32 times this season, just twice per game. Now, only the Atlanta Falcons stand between Cunningham and the Super Bowl. They have little hope. It seems that when Cunningham is on the field, they are going to score. "He's finally realised that it's not all about Randall," said Gerald Carr, assistant coach at Philadelphia. "Once he realised it wasn't all about him being a superstar, he became one."