It is with great sadness that we learned of Bennie Cunningham’s passing on April 23. He was one of the stalwarts of Clemson football history.
A large athlete on the gridiron and an even larger hero in life, he touched so many people through his playing days as a Tiger and as a Pittsburgh Steeler, along with his work as an educator at nearby West Oak High School.
Cunningham was a consensus first-team All-American as a junior in 1974. That was the season the Tigers were 7-4 overall and 6-0 at home, with wins over Georgia, Georgia Tech and South Carolina. He was also chosen to many All-America squads as a senior. He was a two-time, First-Team All-ACC pick and was selected to play in the Hula Bowl, Japan Bowl and East-West Shrine Game.
In 2002, Cunningham was the only tight end at an ACC school to be named to the ACC’s 50-Year Anniversary team. You could say Cunningham is regarded as the greatest tight end in school history, and his career at Clemson had a lot to do with Clemson’s rise to prominence in 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 No. 6 in the nation, at the time the highest finish in school history.
Cunningham’s career at Clemson almost never took place. He was more involved in the band as a youth than the football team.
Before the start of the 1968-69 academic year, Cunningham was a tall, skinny kid who played the clarinet in the band at the old Blue Ridge High School in nearby Seneca, S.C. Though he enjoyed playing the clarinet, he did not like the work that went along with it.
What he loved to do was play football, and Cunningham was a natural at it. He was lean, he was fast and, most importantly, he was good at it. Before his freshman year of high school, Cunningham decided he was going to quit the band and play football instead.
A few weeks into practice, however, Cunningham realized football wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. He discovered he hated practice. He didn’t like the fact he had to condition his body and lift weights, and learning the playbook was like having extra homework.
He discovered he was working harder in football than he ever did in the band, so the week before the first game, he told the coaches he was quitting the team.
“I got fed up with football because I didn’t realize how hard it was to play football."
The coaches were puzzled by Cunningham’s decision. Since the start of practice, he did nothing but succeed. They had already penciled him in as a starter, though he had never played the game before he came out for the squad.
But none of that mattered...he still quit the team.
That afternoon, Cunningham went back home and did his homework and studied like everything was okay. Life was good. He was getting what he wanted out of it, or so he thought.
Later that evening when his dad came home and discovered that his son had quit the football team, it was time for a good heart-to-heart conversation.
“My father came to me 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.'
“So that’s when I decided to go back out for the team and prove to myself and everybody else that I can do this.”
And did he ever prove it! After integration moved him to Seneca High School, Cunningham went on to become a three-time all-state player, which led to Shrine Bowl honors and a football scholarship at Clemson.
Cunningham became the most decorated tight end in Clemson history, and the ACC for that matter. He became Clemson’s second consensus All-American in 1974, and then the Tigers' second two-time, first-team All-American the following year.
In 1976, Cunningham was taken in the first-round by the Steelers. Cunningham had a brilliant 10 years with the Steelers, where he amassed 2,879 yards and 20 touchdowns, plus blocking for most of running back Franco Harris’ 91-career rushing touchdowns. He also played on a Super Bowl Championship team. In 2007, when the Steelers celebrated their 75th anniversary, the Pittsburgh fans voted Cunningham on the all-time team, the only tight end on the team.
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.