Remembering former Chiefs defensive coordinator, head coach Gunther Cunningham
Four Lessons From The Game of Football for Your Daughter
By Gunther Cunningham
1. If you are going to play, ATTACK. There is a fine line between greatness and failure.
2. Don’t worry about mistakes. All games are full of them.
3. Remember, the winner is the one who made the adjustments at halftime.
4. Enjoy the game and always remember: The scoreboard is for the fans.
Gunther Cunningham grew up one mile from the Dachau concentration camp in the years after the war. Sometimes he and his friends would search through the grass for stray bullets. They would then take a hammer to the bullets and try to make them blow up.
He grew up so poor that he couldn’t imagine what another life might even look like. He never knew his biological father. There was no indoor plumbing. Hunger was a constant companion. Once, many years later, I rode with him through a struggling neighborhood of boarded-up stores and ramshackle homes. a film of hopelessness seemed to cover everything. I saw tears in his eyes. He said it reminded him of his own childhood.
“Does it look like where you grew up?” I asked him.
“Nothing like it,” he said. “But all poverty looks the same.”
His mother married an Air Force Pilot named Garner Cunningham … that’s how Gunther came to America when he was 10. He couldn’t speak a word of English, and he got beat up a lot. Football saved him. That’s not an exaggeration. Football … saved … him.
“On the football team, we used to play this game,” he told me, “it was called ‘bull in the ring.’ There was this big guy in the middle, and we formed a circle around him. Well, I rushed up, and that big guy went down real hard.
“Then I went in the circle. And nobody could knock me down. All that pent-up anger inside me — I had SO much anger inside me — I finally knew what to do with it all.”
He wasn’t big enough to play football. He played just the same. The rage carried him through. He was a linebacker and kicker at Oregon. And when the rage wasn’t enough to push him to the NFL, he just refocused it on being a defensive coach. He coached with such fury that he would lose 10 pounds every game.
He coached wherever they were hiring — at Oregon, then Arkansas, then Stanford, then Cal. He went to the Canadian Football League and coached the defensive line and linebackers for Hamilton. He went to Baltimore to coach for the Colts and then went with them to Indianapolis. He coached the Chargers. He coached the Raiders.
More than anything, he became the defensive coordinator for the Kansas City Chiefs. In 1995 and 1997, he coached dominant defenses, Super Bowl-caliber defenses. But those teams didn’t go to the Super Bowl. That, alas, was part of Gunther Cunningham’s life story too. Nobody wanted to win more. And yet, he never did get to the Super Bowl.
I have never known anyone quite like him. Football coaches are, by their nature, obsessive, fanatical, pathological even. They sleep in their offices, they coach and watch film until they’re bleary and spent. We’ve all heard the stories. Gunther took it to a whole other level. In January 1998, the Chiefs played Denver in the playoffs — Gunther Cunningham designed 73 new blitzes for that game. Seventy-three.
He used to make a game of his obsession. At 3:15 some mornings, he would call over to the offices of then (and current) Raiders coach Jon Gruden, just to see if he was in. Gruden was famous for his all-consuming work ethic. But he was never there at 3:15 a.m., and as Gruden’s office line would ring and ring, Cunningham would laugh and laugh knowing full well that nobody on earth worked longer and harder than he did.
Gunther Cunningham was always the bull in the ring.
When Chiefs general manager Carl Peterson was hiring a head coach after the disastrous 1998 season, he did not intend to hire Cunningham. But so many people spoke up for Gunther — including a couple of the candidates who Peterson brought in — that there really wasn’t any other choice. He smiled broadly and shook Gunther’s hand and gave him the chance he’d been waiting for all his life. Cunningham was 53 years old.
Cunningham coached the Chiefs in 1999 and 2000. And to be blunt: The role didn’t fit. There were some wins and losses — the team went 16-16, just missing the playoffs in 1999 after a heartbreaking loss to Oakland in overtime — but all in all Cunningham’s obsession for coaching didn’t play well in the head coach’s office. He wanted to do everything, needed to do everything, and the job overwhelmed him. “You can’t build parking lots and worry about players’ wives and direct the security system,” he would say, “but that’s what I did.”
Also, not incidentally, the Chiefs didn’t have many playmakers. Gunther found out he was fired when checking out the latest news on the Internet.
He didn’t stop then. He couldn’t stop. He went to coach in Tennessee. He came back to Kansas City for a while. He went off to coach in Detroit. In all, Gunther Cunningham coached football for 12 different teams over 48 seasons, and to the end, he coached with the fury and desperation that had bubbled inside since he was a boy.
Saturday, Gunther Cunningham died after a bout with cancer.
I won’t lie: The loss hits me hard. As a sportswriter, you meet a lot of people, you talk with a lot of people, you write about a lot of people. But you don’t get to know many people. I got to know Gunther Cunningham. On the field, he was maniacal, a screamer, a whirlwind, but away from it all, his gruff voice went soft and he spoke sweetly about so many things.
We seemed to talk about everything — family, faith, fatherhood, food ... those are just the Fs. He loved to tell the story about seeing René leaning up against a wall when they were both in high school — her right leg, he used to say, was lifted off the ground just so — and he knew she was the one. They were married 50 years ago this June. He talked about how much he came to love America; he became a naturalized citizen in 2010. He talked a lot about his kids, Adam and Natalie, and how sad he felt that he spend so much time away from them. But he couldn’t help who he was.
“You know what bothers me,” he said to me once when he was coaching the Chiefs.
“I don’t like when people bring me drinks on the field. It makes me feel bad. They shouldn’t bring me drinks like I’m some kind of king or something. I should be bringing them drinks. I’m just a coach. I’m nobody.”
“You’re not nobody, Gun.”
“I just don’t like when people treat me like I’m special,” he said.
He was special, though. When the Chiefs fired him from the only head coaching job he’d ever have, Gunther Cunningham broke a little. For a time, he could not even get out of bed. Friends called; he wouldn’t answer the phone. People would ask to see him; he refused to go outside. Teams offered him jobs, he turned them all down without even a second thought.
And then, he started to piece his life back together. His family got him there. René, the kids, they reminded him that he was somebody. He started taking calls from friends, and they made him feel better. His friend Jim Schwartz, defensive coordinator for the Titans then, called and asked Gunther to come help out. He took the job. He moved to Nashville. He even got a Porsche.
I went to see him a couple of weeks before our daughter was born. We talked about many things.
“Hey, listen,” he said in that gravel driveway of a voice and he leaned in real close, “you’re about to have your first kid, right?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Don’t make the mistakes I’ve made,” he said. “Don’t put anything in front of your family. You love that boy or girl with everything you’ve got.”
And then he took out a piece of paper, and he wrote down the four lessons that are at the top of this column. I love them all, but I especially love the last one.
Enjoy the game. And always remember: The scoreboard is for the fans.