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Randall Cunningham's career can be summed up by a handful of gaudy statistics. He rushed for 4,928 yards, second most among quarterbacks in NFL history. He threw for 29,979 yards, more than Terry Bradshaw or Joe Namath. And he went to four Pro Bowls in 16 seasons. But the most telling statistic of all might be 2: the number of versions of Randall Cunningham who played in the league.
Randall Cunningham 1.0 quarterbacked the Philadelphia Eagles from 1985 to 1995. He was widely regarded as aloof and egotistical, more interested in getting onto the red carpet than in hanging out with teammates. And although his electrifying ability to scramble through, over and around defenders had never been seen before, he won only one playoff game.
Randall Cunningham 2.0 looked nothing like the original. In five seasons with the Minnesota Vikings, Dallas Cowboys and Baltimore Ravens, from 1997 to 2001, he was humble and reserved, accepted by teammates as a leader. In the 1998 season, throwing mostly from the pocket, he led Minnesota to the brink of the Super Bowl, losing to the Atlanta Falcons in overtime of the NFC Championship Game.
|Randall Cunningham played quarterback for the Philadelphia Eagles from 1985-95.|
"Back then, I was a different person," Cunningham, 48, recently said, referring to the first part of his career. "I was immature. I was trying to figure out who I was."
How did Cunningham reinvent himself in such an abrupt manner? The answer unfolded in 1996, the year that separates the two Cunninghams.
To understand what happened in 1996, you need to go back just a little further. Cunningham was benched by Eagles coach Ray Rhodes for the final 12 games of the 1995 season in favor of Rodney Peete, who seemed to have a better grasp of the offense. After the season, Cunningham received no offers to be a starter. Too prideful to accept a role as a backup, he retired.
"It got to a place where I hated the game because I wanted to be in the game," said Cunningham, the subject of an "E:60" feature scheduled to air at 7 p.m. ET Tuesday on ESPN. "I wanted to play. That was my position; that was my spot. But it was taken from me."
Cunningham returned to Las Vegas, where he had attended college at UNLV, and started a custom marble and granite company. He spent more time with his wife, Felicity. But, most important to Cunningham, the time away from football allowed him to reconnect with his Christian faith.
"People would come up to me and say, 'No, this is not you. Randall Cunningham would not do this. He wouldn't be on the floor dirty and scraping a floor and carrying heavy things. He's a multimillionaire,'" Cunningham said. "But that was not what God was doing in my life. He was allowing me to humble myself under his mighty hand."
Cunningham was baptized and began to constantly rely on his faith for guidance. After the 1996 NFL season concluded, calls from NFL coaches trickled in. Mike Ditka of New Orleans and Jeff Fisher of Tennessee told Cunningham they wanted to sign him. But Brian Billick, then the offensive coordinator of the Vikings, went one step further, flying to Las Vegas and meeting with the man he wanted as Brad Johnson's understudy.
A backup role no longer looked that bad to Cunningham, who, with a new outlook on life, realized he still loved the game. But he was overwhelmed by the attention. So he turned to Pastor John Michaels, with whom he had recently formed a bond, for advice.
"He wanted to know if God wanted him to go to Minnesota," Michaels said. "I told him he was asking the wrong person. He needed to be asking God."
So Cunningham did. Before signing with Minnesota, he said he prayed to God, asking for one favor: "Don't let me go back to the person I used to be. Don't let me become the prideful person. Don't let me be arrogant."
When Cunningham arrived in Minnesota at age 34, many of his new teammates were expecting to see the old version of Randall Cunningham. They were stunned by his transformation.
"When he came to Minnesota, the No. 1 thing in his life was his faith," said Cris Carter, who played with Cunningham for three seasons in Philadelphia and three seasons in Minnesota. "He still loved football and still wanted to compete. But where he was and the peace that he had, the understanding he had of football, he looked at football totally different."
Carter added: "So when it was time for him to take over the team, the team was comfortable with him being a leader."
When Johnson was injured in the second game of the 1998 season, Cunningham became the Vikings' starter. He relied more on his teammates than when he played in Philadelphia. With receivers such as Carter, Jake Reed and a promising rookie named Randy Moss, Cunningham led one of the most potent offenses in NFL history in 1998, the season the Vikings reached the cusp of the Super Bowl.
"Minnesota was probably the happiest I've seen him," Felicity said.
Cunningham retired for good after the 2001 season and never reverted to his former self, returning to Las Vegas and raising a family. These days, Cunningham still performs in front of large crowds on Sundays. Only now he does so in church. He became an ordained pastor for a nondenominational church he founded, Remnant Ministries. While in the pulpit, he will sometimes look back on the old Randall Cunningham, offering himself as an example of how significant and lasting changes can happen when they're least expected.
"Whenever you've gone through wounds and things like that, there comes a day where God heals you," Cunningham said. "And he healed me."
David Picker is a producer for "E:60."