Seven Questions for Randall Cunningham

The football legend-turned-pastor on landing in Las Vegas, winning a ‘Super Bowl’ and being shunned by his alma mater

Photo by Steve Spatafore

Photo by Steve Spatafore

Those who are old enough to remember Randall Cunningham in his prime don’t need to be reminded that he was a uniquely gifted quarterback, someone who revolutionized the position at a time when Michael Vick was a toddler and Colin Kaepernick and Robert Griffin III were just figments of their parents’ imaginations. For those who aren’t old enough to remember those All-American days at UNLV (1982-84) and the spectacular 16-year NFL career, well, this is why YouTube exists.

Now a dozen years removed from his last competitive game, Cunningham has spent his retirement years in his adopted hometown, devoting his days to the three “Fs”: family, faith and football. An ordained minister, pastor Cunningham operates Remnant Ministries on East Windmill Lane, minutes from the Strip. Away from his church, he’s helped mold son Randall II into a highly recruited quarterback and world-class high-jumper. About the only thing missing from Cunningham’s otherwise fulfilled life? Two phone calls: one from the Pro Football Hall of Fame, the other from his alma mater.

How did you end up choosing UNLV?

My older brother Bruce [a defensive back] decided to come to UNLV, and when he signed his letter of intent, I decided I would take a visit. When I did, I dropped all the other offers, because I loved it here so much. The coaching staff cared about the players, the community cared about the players, it was a winning program—a great coaching staff with [then-head coach] Tony Knap. They made me feel like they wanted me— and I knew there was success on the horizon.

At what point in your life did you know you were athletically gifted?

When I was a young kid, everybody compared me to my older brother Sam [Cunningham, a fullback with the New England Patriots from 1973-82], and said, “You’re going to be just like Sam.” I was always taller and faster and just more aggressive than the other kids my age, so people would always give me confidence by saying, “You know what? You’re going to make it to the pros, like your brother did.” I was about 9 years old.

You blazed a trail for today’s slew of dual-threat quarterbacks like RG III, Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson. Which of those guys most reminds you of you?

I think Kaepernick because of his confidence. When I entered the NFL, I believed that I was going to be in the playoffs and be in the Super Bowl early in my career. You never think about how it’s a team effort; I was just so caught up in myself. … So when I look at Kaepernick, I love his confidence. I love RG III’s confidence—that’s something you have to have. The athletic ability will always get the job done; a quarterback who’s a great athlete in the NFL can win a minimum of seven, eight, nine games.

When you look at the UNLV football team’s struggles over most of the past two decades, what emotions do you feel? 

Disappointed. Very disappointed. Because I’ve offered my services to the team, to the coaching staff, to the athletic director, to the alumni. I’ve offered to be a consultant. But nothing’s come of it. I’ve got my degree. I don’t have a bad image, I was successful in my football career, not only as a player, but as a student of the game. And I would love to be a part of UNLV’s football program.

I sat down with the athletic director [Jim Livengood] before he retired, and we really talked about it, and he was about to do it. Next thing you know, he’s gone.

Have you ever been told why they don’t want you?

Um, no. I don’t have a clue. I know it’s not anything against me; I just think it’s [about] the direction the head coach [Bobby Hauck] wants to go. I did give a little bit of assistance [before] one game—I broke down some film and gave Bobby a synopsis of what I thought, and they went out and won the game. I called him the next week, but after that game, he was kind of busy.

What’s the most memorable game of your career?

There are so many. But one that really stands out wasn’t even in the NFL, or college, or even high school. It was actually when I was coaching my son’s team in eighth grade. We were in the Super Bowl, and we won in triple overtime. At the end of [regulation], the score was 12-12 or 19-19 or something. And I just remember how these young kids had fought back, and that just really encouraged me as a coach to know that I was taking what I learned in all the games I played in at all the different levels, and I was pouring [that knowledge] into these youths.

Your NFL résumé includes nearly 30,000 passing yards and more than 200 touchdowns. You’re the all-time leading rusher for quarterbacks. You have an 82-52-1 record. You even had one of the longest punts in NFL history. So why aren’t you in the Hall of Fame?

That’s a good question! [Laughs.] I guess the same reason a lot of [deserving] people aren’t in there. It’s unfortunate. … I was always told the impact that you made on your position was important, and the people who call me like yourself to do interviews tell me that I was a trendsetter.

I’ll tell you one thing: I went out and played with all of my heart. I played for God, I played for my team, I played for my family, I played for my hometown and my college town. I tried to keep a clean image, didn’t get in trouble, didn’t do drugs, and I did everything that I was supposed to do. It’s just unfortunate that I have not been voted into the Hall of Fame. But I don’t lose sleep over it.

What was your “Welcome to the NFL” moment?

When I was drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles. As a means of protecting myself [after leaving UNLV], I had signed a four-year, $3 million contract with the USFL’s Tampa Bay Bandits. It was behind the scenes; we didn’t want anybody to know. But there was a clause in the contract that said if I get drafted in the NFL, the contract would be null and void. So when I was drafted, that was my welcome moment. I was just so happy.

Speaking of Philadelphia, that city is notoriously tough on its pro athletes. As an African-American quarterback from the West Coast with an unconventional playing style, was there a lot of unjust criticism or harassment from the Philly fans and/or media?

No, not because of my race. Philadelphia’s just a town of, What have you done for me lately? So if I was ever scrutinized, it was based on having a good game, and then maybe not doing as well maybe in the next game.

Given how offenses have evolved and the current rules that are in place to protect offensive players, particularly quarterbacks, how different would you play today?

I probably would not have run as much, I’ll tell you that! Back when I played, whoa, it was free game on the quarterback. You could lay quarterbacks out. Reggie White, Jerome Brown, Andre Waters—these guys put quarterbacks out all the time. Nowadays, you can’t hit in certain ways, and I think that’s smart. They’re allowing receivers to catch the ball now. … There was a lot of [defensive] holding going on back in the day. Now, you can’t touch the guy after 5 yards.

You’ve long been a very spiritual person, but what motivated you to become a pastor and start your own church?

I really wasn’t trying to start a church. I was coming back to Las Vegas to ride off into the sunset and just be away and try to be with my family. But I happened to join a church with the late pastor John Michaels—he died a few weeks ago—and he took a liking to me and groomed me and taught my wife and I the gospel. We started a Bible study, and four years later, he said, “Randall, your Bible study is not a Bible study; it’s a church, and we need to ordain you.”

I waited for about two years, because I really wasn’t trying to become a pastor. But it turns out that that’s the calling of my life, my wife’s life, my family. So here we are in Las Vegas with Remnant Ministries. We’ve been up for almost seven years now, and we’re a multicultural church with an attendance that’s up over 1,100. We have three services—a small one on Friday and two on Sunday. We even have a Spanish sermon.

What can a first-timer expect when he or she attends one of your sermons?

They’re going to be taught the Bible, verse by verse. And they’re going to have an exciting concert-style worship service. And then they’re going to feel the expression and emotion of being loved by their community.

Your work with the ministry obviously means you don’t get to watch a lot of football on Sundays. How closely do you follow the game these days?

I follow the Philadelphia Eagles, I’ll tell you that! I retired an Eagle, so that’s my team. Before Ray Lewis retired this year from the Baltimore Ravens, the Ravens were my second favorite team. And my third team is the Dallas Cowboys, because I love Jerry Jones—he’s a great man, he cares about his team. I don’t really have a hometown team—the California teams move around too much!

Your son, Randall Cunningham II, is entering his first year as the starting quarterback at prep powerhouse Bishop Gorman, and he’s already received several scholarship offers. He also owns state and national records in the high jump. When you watch him, is it like looking in a mirror?

When I first saw my son throw a football and I first saw him put his uniform on, I was shocked—because he looks exactly like me. But he’s 6-foot-5, he’s about 180 pounds and he runs a 4.59 40[-yard dash]. I’ve trained him with the things that I learned when I was in the NFL, so he’s a lot more advanced than when I was growing up. I developed later than other people in my family—I didn’t begin to mature and develop in the NFL until my 10th, 11th, 12th year. So right now, he’s just touching the tip of the iceberg. … This kid is blessed by God.

So what are the chances another Randall Cunningham ends up wearing Rebel red?

Well, he’s received one letter from them. So they’re not showing the most interest. I’m not bashing UNLV, but the interest in my son is really coming from outside schools. To me that’s kind of shocking, because I’m an alumni of UNLV. You would think there would be more [ contact ]. There’s been more [ contact from ] USC, UCLA, Baylor, LSU, Syracuse, Alabama. Auburn’s in town right now. Oregon’s coming to town. These people are coming from out of our state and setting up meetings with our family, wanting our son to go to their school. I haven’t received a call from UNLV.

Read more interviews from Seven Questions.

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