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Cunningham's 2nd life; NFL: Randall Cunningham, a gifted quarterback with the Eagles, is older, wiser and more successful in his new career with the high-flying Vikings; NFC CHAMPIONSHIP


It was just a routine play near the end of the Minnesota Vikings' 41-21 playoff victory over the Arizona Cardinals last Sunday.

The Vikings were in command when they faced a third-and-three play at the Arizona 40 with 6: 19 to play.

Randall Cunningham went back to pass, was flushed out of the pocket and started scrambling. It was vintage Cunningham style as he eluded Andre Wadsworth and Simeon Rice. Suddenly, he had 10 yards of open field ahead of him.

Cunningham didn't run for the first down. He stopped and threw a 16-yard pass to Randy Moss and the Vikings went on to score the clinching touchdown.

That play was an illustration of the new Cunningham, who has grown older and wiser in his second career.

"In the past, I used to press to make things happen, because I thought that's what I was supposed to do," he said. "Now, I see other guys who can get the job done."

In his first career in Philadelphia, Cunningham's spectacular plays made up a highlight reel.

The problem was that Cunningham got a selfish reputation as a player more concerned about his own exploits than the team.

Surprisingly enough, Cunningham agrees with that assessment.

"I was a selfish player," he said. "I had to get away from that."

It didn't help that former Philadelphia coach Buddy Ryan didn't much care about offense and encouraged his freelance ways.

Wide receiver Cris Carter, another ex-Eagle, said: "When he'd take off and run, he was basically doing what they taught him to do. The expectation in Philly always was that Randall was going to carry the Eagles to the Super Bowl all by himself. But that's not the way it works. A quarterback needs other players around him."

The trouble was that once Cunningham got used to doing that, it was difficult to change. "I got used to that style," he said.

When he couldn't adjust to a system, Ray Rhodes eventually benched him and then cut him. When nobody was interested in him in 1996, he spent the year cutting marble in Las Vegas.

In 1997, the Vikings were looking for a backup to Brad Johnson.

Coach Dennis Green and offensive coordinator Brian Billick were interested in Cunningham, but only if he'd be satisfied as a backup.

Billick, who went to Las Vegas twice to visit him, said: "I really overdid it. I kept telling him: 'Look, Brad Johnson is our quarterback,' to the point where I could imagine him saying, 'All right, I get the message.'

"But I liked what I heard. The conversation did not always come back to him. He didn't try to sell himself to me and convince me he ought to be a starter and convince me he was this good or that good."

After the Vikings signed him, he was content as a backup.

"I pray that nothing happens to Brad, because he's our team leader and he's a very good quarterback," Cunningham said early in the 1997 season.

But things kept happening to Johnson, which is why Cunningham started the last five games last year when Johnson was sidelined with a neck injury.

Cunningham was inconsistent after the long layoff and the team went 1-2 in the regular season and 1-1 in the playoffs.

Johnson took over again this year, but broke his leg in the second game. Cunningham was thrust into the lineup again suddenly and played like an experienced field general who could run an offense.

"It's like they push the button and tell me what to do, and it's like, 'Wow, this is pretty cool,' " he said.

With receivers like Carter and Randy Moss and runners like Robert Smith and Leroy Hoard, he's content to just push the bottons.

Cunningham led the team to an NFL-best 15-1 record. Now, only the Atlanta Falcons now stand between him and his first Super Bowl appearance.

A Super Bowl appearance wouldn't be an ego trip for him, though. It would be a chance for him to give his message that accepting God in his life has really made all the difference.

"It's a huge platform," he said of the Super Bowl. "It's made a difference in some guys' lives on our team. I guess that's the whole point of it, to make sure I'm doing what God has called me to do. He has called me to teach and share."

Cunningham sounded happy to have the audience of reporters this week.

"I pray that you mention Jesus Christ in your articles," he said. "As much as your editors might not want this to appear, there are far more people out there that are just waiting to read it."

Pub Date: 1/14/99

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