Gunther Cunningham revisits his early life in Europe

LONDON – He stepped on the plane Monday night along with the rest of the Detroit Lions, but few of them had Gunther Cunningham’s apprehensions.

It might seem odd that a man who was a German citizen until 2010 would have concern heading to Europe, but the former defensive coordinator and current senior coaching assistant has his reasons.

Cunningham left Germany in 1956 when he was 10 years old with his mother, Katharina, and stepfather, the late Air Force Sergeant Garner Cunningham. When he landed in Great Britain on Tuesday morning, it was only the second time he returned to Europe.

In 2006, he was in Italy with his family when the country won the World Cup – the only true vacation he has taken in his life. Then came his work trip this week.

He has never returned to Germany, though, since his initial departure. He has nothing against Germany – he rooted for them heavily in the last World Cup – but his own experiences have kept him away.

“If I get close, I know I’ll cross that border and go,” Cunningham said. “There was talk a few years ago that everybody [in his family] wants to go to Switzerland, and I said that’s really close. My family wants to go to [Germany] so much and I have a couple of uncles that are still alive there. My mother and stepdad went back one time and they really enjoyed it and always talked about going again and never did.

“Everybody says, 'We don’t understand why you don’t want to go,' and I said, 'I have my reasons.'”

Those reasons, what he saw during his first 10 years when Germany was still rebuilding from World War II, still follow him. Growing up a few miles from the Dachau concentration camp, the first concentration camp the Germans opened, he can’t unsee what he saw. He can’t unhear what his grandmother told him of watching prisoners marching through the streets during the war, presumably to their eventual deaths. More than 32,000 people were killed in Dachau.

He can’t forget visiting Dachau once after the war, seeing telephone poles labeled with skulls and crossbones he initially thought were danger signs for drivers. Or how, when he was eight years old, he stuck his fingers in the holes of his stepfather's Mercedes, not knowing they were bullet holes. He can't watch the movie "Schindler's List" because of the memories it brings back.

"It's one of the main reasons I have never been back there," Cunningham said.

By the time he left Germany, he had figured out what the overheard conversations meant and how it linked to what he would see on a daily basis. When his stepfather’s air base was transferred back to the Germans – the iron crosses of the German planes coming back to the base remains a vivid memory over 50 years later – Cunningham's family emigrated to America.

He spoke no English. After a pit stop for refueling in England, Cunningham landed at Idlewild Airport (now John F. Kennedy Airport in New York) and had no clue about the years that would follow – becoming a kicker at Oregon and then a football coach from 1969 until the end of last season, when he became a senior coaching assistant with the Lions following the firing of Jim Schwartz.

“God bless America and the game of football because it has given me a great life,” Cunningham said. “When I stepped off the plane not knowing where I was, it still gives me chills thinking about those days.

“What was I going to do? What was going to happen to me? My stepdad raised me well, though.”

Much is known about Cunningham as a football coach, but he rarely talks about the early part of his life, of his time in Germany with his mother, the father he never knew and the stepfather who ended up being the reason he went to the United States.

Typically when someone asks, he’ll respond with, “You don’t know what I saw, so let’s just keep it that way.” And he would leave it at that. But what he saw shaped everything that followed.

How his family lived on about $100 a month when they arrived in the United States or how difficult it was to fit in early on in a small town as he learned English. How it steered him toward cultural anthropology because of his desire to learn of different cultures and of his love of Winston Churchill, whom he spent hours studying and reading about.

How it made him into the successful person he ended up being.

“It’s not a good thing in my mind, growing up like that. I never let go of it,” Cunningham said. “Maybe it’s what drove me all these years. I wanted to succeed and I had that chip on my shoulder about the war and our family back there and it’s just the whole thing.”

He eventually decided going to England was far enough from Germany that some of his angst subsided. His admiration of Churchill goes back to his childhood, when his grandmother would talk about the former British Prime Minister.

Cunningham, because of his history, has always wanted to learn about cultures and wars. If he had not been a football coach, he would have wanted to participate in archeological dives in the North Sea and English Channel, looking for wreckage and artifacts. Even now, he likes watching British Parliament on television when he can find it because of how vocal and passionate they are about their beliefs.

Germany, though? That’s still a bit difficult for him to fathom returning to, even though he is softening on the idea from how he felt in the past. The memories, more than a half-century old now, are still too fresh to book the trip.

“That country, Germany, has done a great job from what I’ve heard,” Cunningham said. “They rebuilt that country. They are always like that.

“Throughout history, they’ve done it. And I am very, very proud of it. I just have some other feelings.”