Doug Cunningham, an Ole Miss and NFL football great and Mississippi Sports Hall of Famer, died Tuesday, Jan. 13. Cunningham, a native of Louisville and resident of Jackson, was 69. Over the last five years, he suffered complications from dementia.
After his football career Cunningham was a popular Jackson restaurateur, known for his graciousness, charm and wit, operating both Gridley's and Swensons.
As a halfback, wingback and kick returner at Ole Miss, Cunningham averaged nine yards per time he touched the ball over three varsity seasons. In 1966, he led Ole Miss to an 8-3 record and was named All-Southeastern Conference.
His combination of pure speed and elusiveness made him one of the most dangerous open field runners in Mississippi football annals. You would never know it from talking to Cunningham, who was as modest as he was quick and fast.
In 1966, Ole Miss trailed Southern Miss 7-0 in the fourth quarter. USM had never beaten Ole Miss but seemed well on its way. Then, USM made the mistake of punting to Cunningham. Years later, John Grisham, the famous author, wrote about Cunningham's return: …The Rebel Return Man, Doug Cunningham, No. 22, sprang from nowhere, took the ball, and was immediately surrounded by white jerseys. He was hit, broke a tackle, hit again, shook himself free, darted one way then the other, and suddenly emerged from a pile of humanity with his legs pumping, his knees high in the air, his hips twisting, and two blockers in front of him. The crowd erupted. Cunningham cut to the sideline… and hit the afterburners. For a few brief seconds, time that is still frozen in my memory, Doug Cunningham galloped toward the north end zone with unmatched speed, and crossed the goal line all alone. He circled by a fence, long since removed, and nonchalantly flipped the ball to the official. No bodily gyrations. No ripping off his helmet so the world could see him. No showy prayer. No struggling or somersaults. Just a casual little lateral of the ball, as if he had been in the end zone before.
Cunningham and famed football coach Steve Spurrier were rookie teammates together with the San Francisco 49ers. Said Spurrier, "When we all first saw Doug run, nobody on the team could believe how fast he was." Spurrier said.
He was a sixth round draft choice of the 49ers, and, as a rookie, was nicknamed "Goober" because his teammates thought he sounded like Goober in the Andy Griffith TV show.
Sports Illustrated's Ron Fimrite, then a young San Francisco sports writer, described Cunningham's performance in a game against the Minnesota Vikings in which Cunningham had a 64-yard run from scrimmage and a 57-yard punt return. Wrote Fimrite:
It was not just the length of these runs but the manner in which they were accomplished that endeared the little man to us all. Both were fraught with danger along the way. Cunningham spun, dodged, bounced off tacklers, then fled for his life… It was just damned good drama…
Cunningham was as popular off the field as on it. He was elected Colonel Rebel, the equivalent of Mr. Ole Miss, as a senior.
Born on September 14, 1945 in Louisville, Mississippi, Cunningham graduated from Louisville High School in 1963 after earning All-Southern, All-State and All-Conference honors during his senior season in 1962. Coached in high school by Fred Morris, he was selected Most Valuable Player in the Choctaw Conference in 1962 when Louisville High won the league championship.
Cunningham was preceded in death by his parents, Margaret and Julian Cunningham and brother, Stanley Cunningham.
He is survived by his wife, Allen Townes Cunningham and sisters, Sherry (Tim) Byrne of Flowood, Madalyn (Steve) Hindman of Jackson, Janice (Bobby) Adkinson of Starkville and Lisa Speier of Denver.
Funeral services will be at noon Friday at Covenant Presbyterian, preceded by a 10 a.m. visitation. A graveside service will be held at Memorial Park Cemetery in Louisville at 3:30 p.m.
Published by Clarion Ledger on Jan. 15, 2015.