Note: The following appears in the Boston College gameday football program.
A large athlete on the football field and an even larger hero in life, Bennie Cunningham touched so many people through his playing days as a Clemson Tiger and Pittsburgh Steeler, along with his work as an educator at nearby West Oak High School in Westminster, S.C.
That is why a capacity crowd attended his funeral in Seneca, S.C. in late April 2018. The list of former Steelers who flew in for the ceremony included NFL Hall of Fame players Franco Harris, Mel Blount and John Stallworth, plus many long-time members of the Steeler organization.
There were Clemson greats there as well, plus a long list of teachers and administrators with whom he worked over his many years in the South Carolina school system.
In 2002, Cunningham was the only tight end at an ACC school to be named to the ACC 50-Year Anniversary team. In 2007, he was the only tight end on the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 75-Year Anniversary squad.
You could say that Cunningham is regarded as the greatest tight end in ACC history, and his career at Clemson had a lot to do with the Tigers’ rise to prominence during the 1970s.
His success and the team’s success in 1974 led to the recruitment of the players who were seniors in 1978, a team that finished ranked No. 6 in the nation, the highest finish in school history at the time.
In 1974, Cunningham was a first-team All-American, the first African-American in any Clemson sport to be an All-American. He duplicated the All-America honors in 1975 as a senior.
But oddly enough, Cunningham’s football career almost did not take place. We have the wisdom of his father to thank.
As a youth, Cunningham was actually more involved in the band than the football squad.
Before the start of the 1968-69 academic year, Cunningham was a tall, skinny kid who played the clarinet at the old Blue Ridge High School in Seneca. He enjoyed playing the clarinet, but he did not like the work that went along with it.
What he loved to do was play sandlot football, so he decided to quit the band and join the high school team as a freshman.
A few weeks into practice, Cunningham realized he hated practice. He did not like the fact that he had to condition his body and lift weights.
“Learning the playbook was like having extra homework,” he remembered when I spoke with him for an article years ago.
“I was working harder in football than I ever did in the band, so the week before the first game, I told the coaches I was quitting the team.
“I got fed up with football because I didn’t realize how hard it was to prepare for games.”
The coaches were puzzled by Cunningham’s decision. They had already penciled him in as a starter.
However, none of that mattered…he still quit the team.
That afternoon, he went home and started on his homework.
Later that evening when his father came home and discovered that his son had quit the football team, it was time for a heart-to-heart conversation.
“My father was upset and said, ‘Listen, you quit the band because it was tough and now you have quit the football team because it was tough. I don’t care what you do in life…there are going to be times when things get tough. You can’t quit every time something gets tough!’
“That’s when I decided to go back out for the team and prove to myself and everyone else that I can do this.”
And did he ever prove it!
After integration moved Cunningham to Seneca High School, he went on to become a three-time all-state player for the Bobcats, which led to Shrine Bowl honors and a football scholarship to Clemson.
After his All-America and All-ACC career at Clemson, Cunningham was taken in the first round of the NFL draft by the Steelers. He had a brilliant 10 years with the famed franchise, where he amassed 2,879 receiving yards and 20 touchdowns, plus he blocked for most of Harris’ 91 career rushing touchdowns. He played on a Super Bowl championship team as well.
After his career ended, he put his Clemson degree to use as a teacher and guidance counselor in the Upstate. In speaking with many of his co-workers, it was obvious that he was one of the most respected people in his profession in the Upstate.
While many stars of the 1977 and 1978 Tiger football teams receive credit for Clemson’s return to national prominence, Cunningham blazed the path, setting a foundation for greatness.