Football journey: Jermaine Cunningham

November, 6, 2010
11/06/10
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- When it comes to rookie outside linebackers in Bill Belichick's 11-year tenure as Patriots head coach, Jermaine Cunningham has broken the mold.

Not only is Cunningham the highest draft selection at the position in Belichick's time as coach, he's also elevated to the starting lineup quicker than any rookie at that spot. The 22-year-old Cunningham began the 2010 season as a sub rusher, but he became a first-stringer in Week 3 and has been there since. He has been credited by coaches with 22 tackles, one sack, one pass defended and one forced fumble.

Born in the Bronx, Cunningham moved to Georgia when he was 5. After a standout high school career in which he totaled 45 sacks in his junior and senior seasons, he showed up on the radar of Southeastern Conference schools. Cunningham put together a solid career at Florida and was selected by the Patriots in the second round of the 2010 draft (53rd overall).

Cunningham shares his football journey with ESPNBoston.com:

When he first started playing football: "I was in seventh grade, park ball. I was 105 [pounds]."
[+] EnlargeJermaine Cunningham
Harry How/Getty ImagesJermaine Cunningham has made strides in a short time with the Patriots.
Why he started playing: "A couple of my buddies were playing, so I went out that year. I was terrible. I wanted to quit. I came back the next year and put more into it, and felt like I was pretty good. So I just stuck with it."

First positions: "Defensive line and offensive line. In park ball, you just go out and play."

Favorite teams growing up: "I wasn't too much of a football fan. I didn't like watching it, but I did like playing it. When I was getting recruited in high school, I watched more college football."

Top memories at Stephenson High School in Stone Mountain Ga. : "Winning. We were pretty much a winning program in my time there. Just the people I was around, they were a lot of people you see playing college and pro ball -- [LSU linebacker] Kelvin Sheppard, [Redskins rookie linebacker] Perry Riley, [Memphis defensive back] Marcus Ball, [former Georgia Tech quarterback] Reggie Ball, [former Georgia running back] Kregg Lumpkin. There are a bunch of people from the high school who were pretty good athletes. We didn't win a state championship, but we did all right."

Leading Stephenson to the state semifinals as a senior: "We were just a bunch of guys who loved football. We'd go out there on defense and there was no game we thought we'd lose. We just felt like we'd blow everybody out."

One high school game that stands out: "I'd say the semifinals. It was in the Georgia Dome. That was as far as we reached. We had our eyes on the prize, knowing the next game would be the state championship. But unfortunately we lost."

Proudest high school accomplishment: "Getting a college scholarship and knowing that I had an opportunity to go to college for free."

Why he chose to attend Florida for college: "Just my visit when I got there, the people I was around and the coaches and the Gator Nation."

Other college options: "Pretty much the SEC. I wanted to keep it small, and stay in the South. I didn't want to go too far away from home, but I wanted to get away from home."

Top memories of college: "Graduating."

What he takes from the experience at Florida: "Just the community, the people there and the coaches. It's a great program."

Emotions on being selected in the second round by the Patriots: "I just felt like I was living the dream, being able to fulfill my dream and come do what I wanted to do my whole life."

What he's learned about the NFL: "It's a business. You see people come and go, and you just have to stay focused and do your job. It's a job and you have to keep getting better every day."

Favorite moment in the NFL to this point: "I'd say going out in my first game. I missed the preseason games, and playing that first one felt good."

Toughest moment in the NFL to this point: "The preseason when I hurt my ankle and being out. I'm not used to missing games."

How he'd like to be viewed as a player: "Somebody who is going to go out and leave it all on the field."

Summing up his football journey: "A dream."

Mike Reiss

ESPN New England Patriots reporter

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