For too long, the NFL believed black quarterbacks could not succeed in professional football.
In the eyes of many owners, coaches and scouts, black quarterbacks were fine at the college level, but the NFL was different.
Stories abound about how college quarterbacks of color were asked to switch to receiver or defensive back when transitioning to the pros.
Thankfully, that began to change by the mid-1980s.
Doug Williams’ success with the Washington Redskins in Super Bowl XXII helped to demolish the negative stereotype of the black quarterback.
Furthermore, Randall Cunningham’s performance on the field for the Philadelphia Eagles at the time was eye-opening and caused NFL personnel departments to re-think their scouting philosophies.
Today we celebrate Randall Cunningham. Before Lamar Jackson and Michael Vick, there was Cunningham – the NFL’s first superstar dual-threat quarterback.
— Andscape (@andscape_) February 17, 2021
Not only could Cunningham run fast, but he could also throw the ball a mile.
His ability to make plays with his arm and his feet nearly brought two franchises to a Super Bowl.
By the time he retired, Cunningham was suddenly the prototype quarterback that NFL franchises clamored for.
This is the story of Randall Cunningham.
Randall Wade Cunningham was born on March 27, 1963, in Santa Barbara, California.
He was destined to be an athlete, but he wasn’t the first in his family to show prowess for the gridiron.
Cunningham’s older brother, Sam (nicknamed “Bam”), was quite the ballplayer himself and would eventually play in the NFL for New England.
RIP Sam "Bam" Cunningham
FB, #Patriots 1973-79, '81-82
• 1 Pro Bowl (1978)
• 2x Second-Team All-AFC
• Led Pats in rushing yds 6x, in rushing TDs 4x
• Tied for NFL's longest rush in 1974 (75 yds)
• New England's second First-Round selection (11th overall) in 1973 Draft (USC) pic.twitter.com/E8smqeECCJ
— Kevin Gallagher (@KevG163) September 7, 2021
When he entered Santa Barbara High School, it soon became apparent that Cunningham was much like his brother.
However, while Sam was a feared running back, Randall could run and he could also pass like a seasoned veteran.
Randall Cunningham eventually became the Dons starting quarterback and excelled.
During a tight game against rival Dos Pueblos Chargers in his senior year, he gave a preview of what his future in football would look like.
With the Chargers up 14-7 and under a minute to play, Cunningham was scrambling for his life from a Dos Pueblos pass rush deep in his own territory.
Before getting tackled, he let loose a pass that traveled more than 50 yards and landed in the hands of a teammate.
A short time later, the Dons scored and only needed to kick a PAT to tie. However, the coaching staff decided to go for two.
On the conversion attempt, Cunningham rolled out as if passing and then sprinted for the end zone.
He made it safely to pay dirt and the Dons escaped with a 15-14 victory.
Cunningham’s legs got his team the winning points, but it wasn’t a play that his coaches used very often.
According to his former high school head coach, Mike Moropoulos, the coaches felt Cunningham was too valuable to have him run the ball unless it was absolutely necessary.
“You only get one Randall Cunningham in four lifetimes, and you don’t want people to get free shots at him,” Moropolous said in 2017.
Santa Barbara would continue winning until they faced Long Beach Poly in the state finals and lost.
The loss ended a season where the Dons won 13 games, a program record.
After graduating high school in 1981, Cunningham had some local college interest, but he eventually took the road less traveled and headed to Las Vegas.
A Runnin’ Rebel
In 1978, the University of Nevada Las Vegas made the jump from Division II to I-A.
The Rebels fared well in the three years before Cunningham arrived in the fall of 1981.
From ‘78-1980, UNLV posted winning records each year.
However, in 1981, the Rebels would finish 6-6 while Cunningham watched from the sidelines.
The following year, new UNLV head coach Harvey Hyde named Cunningham the starter.
Cunningham passed for 2,847 yards, 17 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions, but the Rebels won only three games.
It was the program’s worst record in a decade.
Things got better in 1983 when UNLV improved to 7-4.
Randall Cunningham became the first and only UNLV player to be inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2016. The former Rebel P/QB remains the school’s all-time leader in passing yards and punting average. #NFFHistory #CFB150 pic.twitter.com/OJO7PGadFh
— Football Foundation (@NFFNetwork) November 21, 2019
Cunningham threw for less yardage that season (2,545) but had more touchdown passes (18) and fewer picks (8) than he did in 1982.
In addition to his improved passing, 1983 also saw Cunningham acknowledged for his other role on the team, punter.
He was named First-team All-American as a punter on the strength of 56 punts for 2,435 yards and a 43.5-yard average.
Cunningham and UNLV Thrive in 1984
As a senior, Cunningham and the Rebels came into their own and finished the season 10-2.
The team was then invited to play in the California Bowl against the University of Toledo.
— CFB Home (@CFBHome) February 15, 2021
During the bowl game, Cunningham passed for two touchdowns and ran for another as the Rebels won easily 30-13.
For the season, Cunningham passed for a career-best 2,898 yards, 26 touchdowns, and 10 picks.
Additionally, he punted 62 times for 2,886 yards, a 46.5-yard average, and was a Second-team All-American.
In his three years as a starter at UNLV, Cunningham broke 18 UNLV records, including career marks for passing yards (8,020), touchdown passes (59), and punting average (45.6).
He was also a two-time Pacific Coast Athletic Association Offensive Player of the Year, a first-team all-conference three times as a punter and twice as a quarterback.
Cunningham’s stats made him only the third quarterback in history to pass for at least 2,500 yards in three consecutive seasons.
Unfortunately, as Cunningham was preparing for the 1985 NFL Draft, a PCAA investigation revealed that seven UNLV players had competed while actually being academically ineligible (Cunningham was not involved).
Because of the violations, the wins from 1983 and 1984 were vacated and the Rebels were stripped of their California Bowl win.
As disappointing as the news was for the UNLV players, Cunningham was moving on and he set his sights on the next step of his football journey.
Philadelphia Drafts Cunningham
In 1980, the Philadelphia Eagles made it to Super Bowl XV where they lost to the Oakland Raiders.
They returned to the postseason the following year, then just seemed to get worse.
As the 1985 season loomed, the franchise was desperate to start winning again.
With pick number 37 in the second round of the 1985 NFL Draft, the Eagles selected Cunningham.
— Old Time Football 🏈 (@Ol_TimeFootball) March 27, 2021
During his rookie year, Cunningham sat behind veteran Ron Jaworski as Philly went 7-9.
It was a one-game improvement in the win column for the team.
However, with one game remaining in the season, the Eagles fired head coach Marion Campbell and he was replaced by interim coach Fred Bruney.
Cunningham did see limited action that year, earning the Eagles’ first win of the year in Week 3 against the Redskins.
However, he would throw for one touchdown and eight interceptions.
Cunningham Finally Becomes the Eagles’ Starter
In 1986, new head coach Buddy Ryan split quarterbacking duties between Jaworski, Cunningham, and veteran Matt Cavanaugh.
The revolving door of quarterbacks led to the team finishing with the third-fewest passing yards in the league (2,540) and fewest yards per attempt (4.1).
In his five starts, Cunningham’s stats improved slightly and he had eight touchdown passes and seven picks.
He also endured an astounding 72 sacks (a franchise record) behind the Eagles’ makeshift offensive line.
Because of the porous line play, Cunningham scrambled for 540 yards and five rushing touchdowns in ‘86.
With 12 days left until the Eagles opener, let's honor Randall Cunningham, a human highlight reel. There has not be a more exciting player in all my years of watching Eagles football. pic.twitter.com/wmzHUkggN5
— Glen Macnow (@RealGlenMacnow) August 31, 2021
His rushing yards were somewhat surprising because Cunningham ran for only 223 yards total at UNLV.
During the 1987 season, the Eagles won seven games during the strike-shortened year.
There was also a feeling that the team was turning a corner.
Three losses came at the hands of “scab” players who stepped in while the NFL players were on strike.
Furthermore, Philly defensive lineman Reggie White set an NFL record with 21 sacks in only 12 games.
In the draft that year, the franchise added defensive tackle Jerome Brown and linebacker Byron Evans.
The Eagles defense was shaping up to be one of the most ruthless in the NFL.
Cunningham was named the starter for the year and passed for over 2,700 yards, 23 touchdowns, and 12 yards.
He also continued running for his life and rushed for 505 yards and three scores.
Philly Returns to the Playoffs
In 1988, Philadelphia rode the arm and legs of Cunningham all the way to a 10-6 record.
The wins were the most by the team since 1981.
That season, Cunningham passed for a career-best 3,808 yards and added 24 touchdowns and 16 interceptions.
He would pick up 624 more yards and six touchdowns rushing.
During a game against the New York Giants in Week 6, Carl Banks of the Giants nearly sacked Cunningham, knocking him off his feet.
Remarkably, Cunningham stayed upright and then unleashed a touchdown pass to receiver Jimmie Giles.
— Philadelphia Eagles (@Eagles) May 28, 2019
Banks was incredulous after the play.
“I played my technique perfectly. I go in to make a routine tackle and he (Cunningham) turns into Stretch Armstrong. It was one hell of a football play. No other quarterback could make that play. It was like Michael Jordan. You get a hand in his face and he still hits the shot.”
Thankfully, Cunningham finally had a reliable receiver in second-year pro-Cris Carter, who caught 39 passes that year.
After the Eagles lost a heartbreaking Divisional playoff game to Chicago in the “Fog Bowl”, Cunningham was voted to his first Pro Bowl.
He was named the starting quarterback for the NFC by his peers and it marked the first time a black quarterback started in a Pro Bowl.
Cunningham’s performance in the all-star contest led to him being named the MVP of the game.
Human Highlight Reel
The 1989 season saw Philly win 11 games as Cunningham passed for 3,400 yards, 21 touchdowns, 15 picks, ran for 621 yards, and had four rushing scores.
During a late-season showdown against the division rival New York Giants, the Eagles were pinned deep on their side of the field.
The score was tied at 17 and Philly had the ball at their own two-yard line after the Giants Erik Howard sacked Cunningham.
Instead of Eagles punter Max Runager coming in to punt the ball on fourth down, Cunningham asked Ryan if he could punt instead.
Ryan agreed as Cunningham had been an All-American punter at UNLV.
Surprisingly, the punt touched down at the Giants’ 39-yard line then continued to bounce to the seven.
Randall Cunningham turns 58 today. Not only was he one of the most electric QBs to ever play the game, let’s not forget the time he booted this legendary 91-yard punt 💣 pic.twitter.com/yn0sXOJoPW
— Field Yates (@FieldYates) March 27, 2021
The 91-yard punt was officially the longest in team history and would be the fourth-longest in league history.
As good as their season was, the Eagles were upset in the Wild Card round by the LA Rams 21-7.
In 1990, Philly continued to find ways to win and ended the season 10-6.
Cunningham provided more dramatics during a game against Buffalo in Week 13.
In a desperation heave from his own end zone, Cunningham barely eluded a sack by the Bills Bruce Smith and found receiver Fred Barnett 60 yards away.
— Old Time Football 🏈 (@Ol_TimeFootball) February 10, 2022
Barnett caught the ball and sprinted into the end zone for a 95-yard touchdown.
That season, Cunningham passed for 3,466 yards, 30 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions, ran for 942 yards (with an average of eight yards per carry), and had five more scores.
His rushing total was the third most by a quarterback in league history.
Cunningham would be named to his third straight Pro Bowl after the season.
He was also named UPI’s Offensive Player of the Year.
For the third year in a row, Philly underperformed when it mattered most and was bounced from the postseason, this time by the Redskins in the Wild Card round.
Not long after the game, Ryan was fired.
The Eagles Finally Advance
During the first game of the 1991 season, Cunningham was sacked by Green Bay’s Bryce Paup and tore his ACL.
He would be placed on injured reserve and was out for the season.
In 1992, he returned healthy and passed for 2,775 yards, 19 touchdowns, and 11 picks.
Cunningham also rushed for 549 yards and five scores, breaking Fran Tarkenton’s all-time rushing record for quarterbacks.
Today in 1992, Randall Cunningham (also known as QB Eagles) broke Fran Tarkenton's all-time NFL rushing record for quarterbacks… pic.twitter.com/y2FCnKorbm
— 80s Sports N Stuff (@80sSportsNStuff) October 18, 2020
He was named the NFL’s Comeback Player of the Year at the season’s conclusion.
Under second-year coach Rich Kotite, the Eagles went 11-5 in ‘92 and beat New Orleans in the Wild Card round.
It was the first time since 1980 that Philly won a playoff game.
However, the following week, the Dallas Cowboys dumped their division rival 34-10 in the Divisional round.
Cunningham would be limited again by injuries in 1993 and only started four games.
In 1994, he returned to pass for 3,229 yards, 16 touchdowns, 13 picks and added 288 rushing yards and three more scores for 7-9 Philadelphia.
After four years, Kotite was fired following the ‘94 season and Ray Rhodes took over in 1995.
That year, the Eagles went 10-6 and beat Detroit in the Wild Card round before succumbing yet again to the Cowboys in the Divisional round.
The season should have been an exciting one for Cunningham.
However, he was relegated to backup duty in favor of veteran Rodney Peete.
Cunningham started only four games and passed for 605 yards, three touchdowns, and five interceptions.
Believing that things would not get better in Philly, Cunningham decided to retire after the season.
He would exit the Eagles with the third-most rushing yards in team history.
At the time, he was second only to Jaworski in franchise passing yards.
Cunningham Guides the ‘98 Vikings
After spending the 1996 season out of football, Cunningham was coaxed back to the game by Minnesota Vikings coach Dennis Green.
In 1997, Cunningham was a backup to Brad Johnson and only started three games.
However, he helped the Vikings overcome a nine-point deficit against the Giants in the Wild Card round, winning the game 23-22.
Minnesota was defeated by San Francisco the following week in the Divisional round.
In 1998, the Vikings were a team to behold.
In addition to deploying Cunningham’s former Eagles teammate, Cris Carter, along with fellow pass-catcher Jake Reed, Minnesota drafted Marshall receiver Randy Moss in the first round of the 1998 NFL Draft.
The sideline photo of Randy Moss after his coming out party to the rest of the Nation when he put the Vikings up 7-0 on his 51 yard bomb from Randall Cunningham on Thanksgiving 1998. NO one has seen such skill before os since. @RandyMoss pic.twitter.com/Pec6UbcwJP
— VikeFans (@VikeFans) June 9, 2021
The team also had the talented Robert Smith as their primary running back.
Green decided to keep both Johnson and Cunningham for ‘98, the better to have two quality starters.
“I am convinced that two successful quarterbacks will be the standard for success in the future in the NFL,” Green said before the season. “Randall Cunningham and Brad Johnson give us that advantage.”
After being named the starter coming out of training camp, Johnson struggled with injuries throughout the year.
That thrust Cunningham into the starting role.
By Week 8, Minnesota was undefeated. They lost in Week 9 to Tampa Bay, then won the rest of their games that season.
Cunningham had a career resurgence.
The ‘98 Vikings were a polar opposite from the Buddy Ryan-coached teams he played for in Philly.
Where Ryan was clearly defensive-minded, Green and offensive coordinator Brian Billick were committed to offense.
During the season, the Vikings scored a then NFL record 556 points.
Thanksgiving Flashback: 1998 Minnesota at Dallas. Up 20-6, Randall Cunningham's face tells it all as he glanced towards Randy Moss. Picture is worth as a thousand words! @RandyMoss pic.twitter.com/P84u0n9w2f
— VikeFans (@VikeFans) November 25, 2021
Cunningham passed for 3,704 yards (the second-highest of his career), 34 touchdowns (a career-best), 10 interceptions, and had a league-best 106.0 passer rating.
He would be named a First-team All-Pro after the season and was also voted to his fourth Pro Bowl (his first in eight years).
With Smith and fellow running back Leroy Hoard carrying the load, there was no need for Cunningham to break out the wheels.
He would rush for only 132 yards and a touchdown in ‘98.
The Vikings rolled into the playoffs and easily dispatched Arizona 41-21.
Then, in the NFC Championship Game, the Vikings were upset in their own stadium by the Atlanta Falcons 30-27 in overtime.
The game turned when Vikings kicker Gary Anderson missed his first field goal attempt of the year that would have put Minnesota up by ten in the fourth quarter.
Atlanta took advantage and tied the score before the end of regulation. They would then win the game in the extra period.
Despite the soul-crushing loss, Cunningham and Minnesota believed they would return to the postseason for the foreseeable future.
Cunningham Leaves the Vikings, Ends Career in Baltimore
The 1999 season didn’t start well for Minnesota or Cunningham.
There was some measure of revenge in Week 1 when the Vikings beat the Falcons in Atlanta.
However, the team then dropped four out of their next five games.
Cunningham started the season, but he threw nine interceptions in the first six games.
His play contributed to Minnesota’s 2-4 start.
That prompted Green to bench Cunningham in favor of newly signed veteran Jeff George.
The Vikings then went 8-2 the rest of the way to finish 10-6 overall.
After a Wild Card win over Dallas, Minnesota lost to Kurt Warner and the “Greatest Show on Turf” St. Louis Rams in the Divisional Round.
By then, Cunningham knew his days in Minnesota were at an end.
It was even more apparent when the team announced that 1999 first-round pick Daunte Culpepper would start in 2000.
He was released by the Vikings and signed by the Dallas Cowboys weeks before the 2000 season began.
The Cowboys' "Ultimate Weapon".
#7, Randall Cunningham pic.twitter.com/8MflhbGlNl
— Kevin Gallagher (@KevG163) November 2, 2020
Cunningham backed up Troy Aikman and saw little playing time.
However, he did get a start against his former team, Philadelphia, and their quarterback Donovan McNabb.
The game went into overtime before Philly won the contest 16-13.
After the season, Cunningham was not re-signed by Dallas and he was picked up by the Baltimore Ravens in 2001.
In Baltimore, Cunningham was reunited with his former Minnesota offensive coordinator, Brian Billick.
He served as the backup to starter Elvis Grbac and even won two games for the Ravens.
But, once again, Cunningham was not re-signed after the ‘01 season.
In August of 2002, he signed a one-day contract with the Eagles and retired.
During his 16 year NFL career, Cunningham passed for a total of 29,979 yards, 207 touchdowns, 134 interceptions, and rushed for 4,928 yards (third all-time among quarterbacks) and 35 touchdowns.
Day 15 of 28 black QBs in 28 days. Randall Cunningham is one of the greatest dual threat QBs in NFL history. In 16 NFL seasons, Cunningham had:
29,979 passing yards
207 passing TDs
4,928 rushing yards
35 rushing TDs pic.twitter.com/1IDoKi13P5
— The 4 Man Rush (@4ourmanrush) February 15, 2022
He was a First-team All-Pro once, a Second-team All-Pro twice, led the league in passer rating in 1998, was a Comeback Player of the Year, Offensive Player of the Year, and was a three-time winner of the Bert Bell Award for NFL Player of the Year.
Cunningham would later be added to the Eagles Hall of Fame.
Since retiring, Cunningham has been active in football, church, and with his family.
After spending time as an assistant coach at Silverado High School in Henderson, Nevada, Cunningham became the head coach of the program in 2014.
He promptly led the school to a winning record and a playoff victory in his first season.
In 2016, Cunningham was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. He is the only UNLV player to receive such an honor.
Cunningham is an ordained minister and is heavily involved in his Las Vegas-based church, Remnant Ministries, which he founded in 2004.
In 2020, he became the team chaplain for the Las Vegas Raiders after they moved to Nevada from Oakland, California.
Recently, Cunningham’s daughter, Vashti, competed in the high jump in the 2020 Olympics.
Vashti Cunningham, daughter of Randall Cunningham, is going to the Tokyo Olympics!
— Andscape (@andscape_) June 22, 2021
Cunningham is often mentioned as one of the pioneers of the modern, dual-threat quarterback in the NFL.
Those that came after him, such as Michael Vick, Russell Wilson, Cam Newton, and Lamar Jackson, can attribute their style to Cunningham.
That is his tide-changing contribution to the new legacy of the black quarterback in the NFL.