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Jerome Cunningham, from D-II to Giants TE

8/21/2014

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- New York Giants tight end Jerome Cunningham grew up in Waterbury, Conn., less than a two-hour drive from New York City. So, was he a Giants fan growing up?

"No, I actually have to switch my debit card. Cause I’m a Patriots fan," Cunningham admitted Wednesday. "But not anymore," he quickly added, smiling. "I'm a Giants fan."

Cunningham can certainly be forgiven for what's in his wallet. He's been a little busy the past couple of weeks, trying to learn the Giants' offense on the fly.

At the beginning of August, Cunningham was working for Taylor Rental in Branford, Conn., helping to put up tents for special events. But on Monday afternoon, Aug. 4, Cunningham got a phone call from the Giants, asking him to come down to the team's practice facility as soon as possible.

"My boss wasn’t upset, he already knew I had aspirations of playing in the NFL," Cunningham said. "He didn’t get mad, he was excited. I was walking around saying my goodbyes, and he just yelled at me, 'Are you still here? Just go!'"

The Giants announced his signing the next day, along with veteran defensive end Israel Idonije. But they were barely a blip on the radar, joining the team the day after the stunning announcement that running back David Wilson would be forced to retire.

Since then, however, Cunningham has started to make a name for himself. Perhaps the longest shot of the nearly 100 players currently practicing with the Giants to make the final roster, he is beginning to look like a contender at the tight end position.

Cunningham certainly stood out in practice on Wednesday, catching a short touchdown pass from backup quarterback Ryan Nassib, and later a much longer TD toss from starter Eli Manning, earning audible praise from head coach Tom Coughlin on multiple occasions.

"It felt good," Cunningham said. "It feels good that I’m actually playing faster now than what I was when I first arrived here. Now it’s not even thinking, it’s just all reacting, and moving as fast as possible."

Cunningham is just the second player in the NFL from Southern Connecticut State University, joining Bills defensive end Ike Igbinosun. In four seasons for the Division II Owls, from 2009 to 2012, he had 61 catches for 690 yards and seven touchdowns.

He went undrafted in the spring of 2013, participated in one of the NFL's regional combines, was brought in for a tryout with the Colts, but wasn't signed. So Cunningham spent the year working and finishing up his college degree.

He also continued to work out, twice a day -- at 5 a.m., prior to reporting to work at 7, and again after work -- not giving up on his NFL dream.

Cunningham participated in another regional combine this past spring, was invited to participate in the rookie minicamps of both the Saints and Cardinals, but didn't stick in either place. The Giants also brought him in for a workout, however, and eventually made that call on Aug. 4. After a second workout, the team handed him his first NFL contract.

At 6-foot-3 and 250 pounds, Cunningham is the smallest of the six tight ends currently on the Giants' roster. But he may also be the fastest, and the Giants desperately need a pass-catching weapon at the position.

None of the other five tight ends have particularly distinguished themselves in training camp. When asked Wednesday if the tight end picture has cleared up at all, Coughlin was particularly vague.

"Well, they’ve all contributed, so we’ll keep asking them to do that," the coach said.

It certainly sounds like there's still an opportunity to win the job, or jobs. And Cunningham believes he has a real shot.

"Even if there was a lead dog, I would still say that I have a chance of making this team," Cunningham said. "You have to have that mindset, you always have to be hungry. Even if I was the lead dog, you still have to have that mentality that you’re not the lead dog, so you can stay at No. 1."

Speaking of numbers, Cunningham wore No. 1 in college, but he's wearing No. 48 with the Giants. In fact, he doesn't even own that number -- he's currently sharing it with undrafted cornerback Chandler Fenner.

But that may be about to change -- just like his debit card.