The Cunningham surname has a unique pull for two older generations.
Ask a baby boomer, and the name conjures images of a high-flying fullback and significant figure in the sociology of college football. GenXers, meanwhile, likely recall a pioneering quarterback once dubbed the “ultimate weapon.”
Randall II and Vashti Cunningham aren’t just the children of the greatest football player in UNLV history. They are Cunninghams, a name that brings even more pressure and expectations.
“We have high standards,” Vashti said. “That’s the way it is, so we’ve accepted it already.”
Randall II, a junior dual-sport standout at Bishop Gorman, and Vashti, a freshman at the school, are two of the nation’s top prep high jumpers. And they are proudly the next generation of athletes from a family that has held a prominent place in sports for most of the past 40 years.
“There’s pressure on my kids, and there was pressure on us as kids after Sam,” Randall Cunningham said. “The thing about the name is success is attached to it. We expect our kids to be excellent people and excellent in what they do. And they rise to the occasion.”
Randall’s oldest brother, Sam “Bam” Cunningham, was an All-American at Southern California whose signature performance came in the 1973 Rose Bowl when he soared over the Ohio State defense to score four touchdowns. In his college debut against all-white Alabama on Sept. 12, 1970, Cunningham had two TDs as the Trojans rolled to a 42-21 victory.
The latter has taken on mythic proportions over the years. The game often — although incorrectly — is credited with convincing Crimson Tide coach Bear Bryant to recruit black players and is regarded as a seminal moment in college football in the South. Cunningham, who famously is said to have done more to integrate Alabama in 60 minutes than Martin Luther King Jr. did in 20 years, went on to play eight seasons for the New England Patriots and was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2010.
Randall’s two other older brothers also played college football. A.C. Cunningham played linebacker at Boise State in 1976 and 1977, and Bruce Cunningham was a defensive back for two seasons at Santa Barbara (Calif.) City College before transferring to UNLV, where Randall joined him in 1981. Randall remains the Rebels’ career leader in yards per punt (45.6) and was about 25 years ahead of his time as a quarterback.
Before Colin Kaepernick and Cam Newton and the zone-read craze, there was Randall Cunningham, a 6-foot-4-inch dual threat who passed for 3,466 yards and 30 TDs and ran for 942 yards in 1990 with the Philadelphia Eagles. He retired from the NFL after the 2001 season as the all-time leading rusher among quarterbacks.
“It’s definitely not just the first name, but the last name, too,” Randall II said of his family’s legacy.
Randall also was a standout high jumper in high school — he said his personal best was 6-9 — and has been involved in track and field locally for several years. The UNLV track and field team hosts the annual Randall Cunningham Invitational this weekend, and he coached his two oldest children at the youth level.
“I poured what I learned from other people into them,” Randall said.
Randall II won the Class 4A state title in the high jump as a freshman at Silverado and, after sitting out last season when he transferred to Gorman, is expected to smash the record at the Nevada Interscholastic Activities Association Division I state meet next month. Bryan Barton of South Tahoe set the record of 7 feet in 1983.
Randall II is No. 2 in the nation with a mark of 7 feet, 2 inches and last weekend won the prestigious Arcadia (Calif.) Invitational by clearing 7-1, the fourth time this season he has surpassed the 7-foot barrier. The nation’s No. 1 mark is 7-3.
“Everybody compares me to my dad. That’s been happening since I was real young, so I’m used to living up to the name Randall Cunningham,” said Randall II, who also participates in the long jump. “I want to be better than my dad. It’s always a competition.”
The 6-5, 175-pound Randall II also showed enough potential as the Gaels’ backup quarterback last season to earn scholarship offers from Baylor, Louisiana State, Mississippi State, Syracuse, Utah and UNLV and is expected to start this fall. Randall II said he would like to participate in both sports in college, though he admitted he could have to choose between the two by the time he is an upperclassman.
“You can see his athleticism and explosiveness,” Gorman football coach Tony Sanchez said. “He can make plays with his legs, but he also has a lot of intangibles, and one of the biggest things is he’s got this innate leadership ability.”
Vashti (pronounced VASH-tie) is a top high jumper in the class of 2016 and also competes in the long jump and hurdles. Blessed with strong legs — her mother, Felicity, was a professional ballet dancer — the lanky 15-year-old finished second at Arcadia, and her personal best of 5-10 is tied for fourth in the U.S.
Vashti is aiming to top the mark of 6-2¼ posted by Gabby Williams of Reed at the U.S. Olympic Trials last summer. Williams, a junior, suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament during the basketball season and will not compete at the NIAA state meet next month.
“I just have to keep doing what I’m doing, keep lifting weights and practicing,” Vashti said. “There’s expectations, so when I want to slow down I can’t.”
Randall II and Vashti have Olympic aspirations, and Gorman track and field coach Scott Cooley believes the Cunningham name makes them marketable going forward.
“There’s no reason they can’t make a name for themselves, based on their work ethic and their God-given ability, and in the social media age we live in, their potential is huge,” Cooley said. “When all is said and done, they won’t be known as Randall’s kids, and I think that’s exactly how he wants it.”
Contact reporter David Schoen at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-5203. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidSchoenLVRJ.