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This was the spring of 2014. Doug Cunningham, deservedly, was going into Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame later that summer. We were doing a videotaped interview that would be part of his induction presentation.
I was trying to get Doug to tell the story about the time when he was a rookie with the San Francisco 49ers when some of his 49er teammates, as a prank, had the equipment manager replace “Cunningham” on the back of his jersey with “Goober.”
They thought Cunningham, the good-natured rookie from Louisville, Miss., and Ole Miss talked like Goober on the Andy Griffith Show.
I had heard Doug tell the story several times in the past. Trust me, it was hilarious. “Hey, I was a rookie, what was I supposed to do?” he’d say. The punchline was the NFL’s reaction, which was to place a league rule banning nicknames from the backs of uniforms.
Only this time, at the Hall of Fame, Doug couldn’t tell the story. He knew what he wanted to say. The words just wouldn’t come. He’d start. He’d lose his train of thought. He’d stammer. He’d become frustrated. He’d try to start again. He’d stop.
“What was it I was talking about?” he’d say.
Says Allen Cunningham, Doug’s widow, “It’s really difficult to watch your husband go through what Doug went through.”
Allen Cunningham saw much that was far worse, particularly in Doug’s last few months. He died on Jan. 13, 2015. At the suggestion of Doug’s brother-in-law, Jackson cardiologist Steve Hindman, another former Ole Miss football star, Doug’s brain was donated to the CTE Center at Boston University.
Last week, the New York Times published a report of a study of the brains of 111 NFL players. Of the 111, 110 showed significant evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a disease caused by repeated blows to the head that causes myriad problems, including memory loss, confusion, depression and dementia. Those disorders often arise years after the blows to the head have ceased.
Six months after Doug’s brain was donated, the results came back. Doug Cunningham had a classic case of CTE, stage four of four stages. Allen Cunningham was fairly certain ahead of time that it would. Doug had shown all the classic signs of CTE, including the lack of impulse control and sudden flashes of anger.
Doug Cunningham, who formerly had owned and operated Gridley’s and Swenson’s, two popular Jackson restaurants, was a handsome, gregarious man who made and kept friends easily. He loved to play cards, to golf and to have a good time. He loved to tell stories, too, before CTE took its devilish grip on his brain.
Many of his stories were about his three years of stardom at Ole Miss and eight years in the NFL. Sadly, it seems now, many of those stories were about the hits he received. One was about running around end for the San Francisco 49ers against the Kansas City Chiefs and running into Hall of Fame linebacker Willie Lanier, who outweighed him by 50 pounds, minimum.
“I ran into Willie Lanier on Sunday, and the next thing I knew it was Thursday,” Doug said, laughing.
Another time he talked about running into Dick Butkus, the Chicago Bears’ bruiser, legendary for his vicious hits. Said Doug, “Butkus used to hit me so hard I was afraid he was going to hurt himself.”
But those hits took a deadly toll over four years of high school ball, four years of college ball (one as a member of the freshman team) and eight in the NFL.
Cunningham, a running back and kick returner, was an elusive runner, one of the best open field runners in Mississippi football history. In the end, obviously, he didn’t elude nearly often enough.
Allen Cunningham believes that, in his heart of hearts, Doug knew that football and all the hits he took were at the root of his mental problems. Nevertheless, she says, he remained steadfast that he would do it all again.
“He loved football,” Allen says. “He used to say that those times in San Francisco were the best times of his life.”
Allen Cunningham is forever grateful to the “amazingly kind people” at Boston University CTE Center and what she calls “a really important study that hopefully will inspire and help the sport of football find ways to minimize this tragic disease.”
Allen Cunningham says she still loves to watch football, but she watches it differently these days. She doesn’t cheer the “big hits” with nearly the enthusiasm she once did.