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Where are they now: Bennie Cunningham

Friday, January 25, 2002

By Rich Emert, Tri-State Sports & News Service

A weekly check on the personalities who shaped the history of sports in Western Pennsylvania.

Bennie Cunningham was a large target for Terry Bradshaw in the late 1790s and earl '80s. (Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette)

Bennie Cunningham remembers Terry Bradshaw trying to get him to go play golf between practice sessions at the Steelers' St. Vincent College training camp in Latrobe. That's right, between practice sessions. "We'd work out in the morning, and then Terry and a couple of guys would go take off to play golf before we had to go out again later in the afternoon," Cunningham said, laughing. "I couldn't understand how those guys could do that. I don't know where they got the energy.

"Now, I wish I would have gone with them. I love the game of golf. For me, it's a stress reliever. If I hit a ball into the woods, I just go up and drop another one and keep playing."

Cunningham wishes he would have played more golf because he is going to coach the varsity team this school year at West-Oak High School in Westminster, S.C. He has been a counselor/consultant at the high school for the past 10 years.

He will certainly be one of the largest high school golf coaches in the state.

Steelers fans remember Cunningham as a big target at tight end for Bradshaw in the late 1970s and early 1980s. He was the Steelers' first-round draft choice in 1976 and the starting tight end in Super Bowl XIV. Cunningham finished his NFL career with the Steelers in 1985 and ended up catching 202 passes for 2,879 yards and 20 touchdowns.

He and current Steelers' tight end Mark Bruener may end up with something in common. In 1978, Cunningham was off to an outstanding start. Through six games, he had 16 receptions and was averaging more than 20 yards per catch, tops for any NFL tight end that season. Then, in a game against Atlanta he sustained a left knee injury.

"Terry was getting confidence in me and throwing me the ball a lot when I partially tore the ligament," said Cunningham, who is 6-foot-4 and played at 247 pounds. "In those days, they did things a bit differently. They put a straight-leg brace on it, but, when it started to get better, the leg had atrophied to the point where it wasn't very strong."

"I rushed it trying to get back into the lineup and ended up tearing the cartilage. Chuck [Noll] never did put me on the [disabled list] in the hope I'd come back and be able to help the team, but I didn't play again that season and had surgery after it was over."

Fortunately for Cunningham, the Steelers went to the Super Bowl again the next year, and he was a major contributor. In 1979, he caught 36 passes for 512 yards and four scores and was the perfect complement to Lynn Swann and John Stallworth in the passing game. In the postseason, he had four more receptions, including two for 21 yards in the Steelers' 31-19 victory against the Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl XIV.

"I was worried I'd missed out on things when I couldn't play in Super Bowl XIII," he said. "That was hard just standing and watching. I was glad Terry got us back there again the next year.

"I was healthy and had a good year in '79. We threw the ball a lot that year and had sets where I was split out as a third wide receiver, which was something I liked."

A star at Clemson, Cunningham earned a degree in secondary education and returned home when his playing days were done. Actually, he lived in South Carolina in the offseason when he played for the Steelers and always figured he would end up in education.

"I enjoy what I'm doing. I help students get into the right courses and take the right tests for the occupation or college they might want to get into or try," he said. "A student may have an idea what field they want to go into, and I try to find the best path to make that happen for them."

He doesn't work with just high school seniors but students in all grades at the school. It doesn't hurt that his daughter, Candice, is a senior and his son, Bennie III, is a sophomore, so he has a vested interest in his job. He has another son, Brian O'Neal, who attends the University of Maryland.

Bennie Cunningham III is 6-2, 165, and plays football, basketball and golf. In football, he is a tight end and defensive end.

"He may end up being better at basketball," Cunningham said. "I'd feel a lot better if he ended up playing golf."

Cunningham is in the process of getting his stockbroker's license and may devote more time to that in the coming years. He has followed the Steelers' progress closely this season and stays in touch with former teammates Stallworth and Donnie Shell. Cunningham and Stallworth were roommates in training camp and on the road.

"I hope they go all the way and win the Super Bowl this season," Cunningham said of the Steelers. "I still remember what it was like when we went out and beat the Rams. It was a great thrill."

If you have any suggestions or candidates for Where Are They Now?, e-mail Rich Emert at emert196@attbi.com.

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