Sept. 17, 2004
by Alisa Brandle
Every college football player dreams about his first start, his first chance to make a mark by impressing coaches, family members, and thousands of crazy fans screaming in the crowd.
Husky senior cornerback Sam Cunningham took full advantage of his first start during his sophomore year, dominating a tough USC offense on the first play of the game. A native of Los Angeles, Calif., native, Cunningham took the field in front of family and friends at L.A. Memorial Coliseum and never looked back.
"I made my first interception ever on the first play of the game against USC, in my first start, on an eventual Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback," he recalls with a smile. "I cannot think of a better way to start off my career. It was awesome."
Starting Cunningham's story with his interception of Carson Palmer doesn't do it justice, however. It's an interesting road that led the six-foot, 180-pound cornerback from the playing fields at L.A.'s Westchester High School to the sidelines at L.A. Memorial Coliseum that day, wearing the gold helmet with the purple `W.'
Recruited by football powerhouses Wisconsin and Tennessee after a 40-tackle, four-interception senior season at Westchester, Cunningham originally signed a letter of intent with Oregon in 2000. However, Cunningham failed to qualify academically to Oregon, the school his parents had suggested would be the best fit for their son. Away from the recruiting process, and with time to consider his decision, Cunningham realized that wearing the green and gold was not what he wanted in his heart.
"Not qualifying made me sit back and really think about what I wanted to do," he says. "I thought about how much I really enjoyed my recruiting trip and the coaches at Washington, and decided that was the place for me."
Worried about upsetting family members with his choice of schools, Cunningham waited until arriving in Seattle before notifying his family of his decision.
"It just felt right," he says. "It is the best decision I could have ever made. Being a Husky football player means the world to me."
Cunningham's family can hardly argue with the results -- the cornerback has appeared in every game the Huskies have played in the last three seasons, starting five times in 2003 while accumulating 22 tackles and three pass defenses.
Cunningham's strong work ethic and love for the game have earned him high praise from his Husky teammates and coaches, who named Cunningham the Huskies' Most Improved Cornerback during spring drills and honored him with the Husky Fever 12th Man award at the 2003 football banquet.
Nicknamed the "Silent Assassin" at Westchester High School because of his quiet demeanor and hard-hitting tackles, Cunningham's commitment to the game is unmatched.
"I just love football," he says. "I love everything about it, from games to practice to weightlifting. There isn't life after football for me, because it will always be a part of my life. I will always be involved with it in some way."
Being a senior in his favorite sport is something Cunningham has not taken lightly. He spent this summer hitting the weights with Husky strength coaches Pete Kaligis and Steve Emtman, only giving himself one week off to visit his family in L.A.
Well, "off" may be a stretch. Yes, Cunningham did see his family -- at dinnertime. The rest of the time, he was on the field at Westchester, working out with his former high school coach.
"I really want to make an impact in my senior year, so I tried to work really hard over the summer," he says. "Training gets tough, but hopefully it will pay off at the end of the season."
Cunningham has worked to spread his work ethic to some of the newer members of the Husky squad, as former Husky tailback Willie Hurst did for him.
"I have taken a few players under my wing, just talking to them about working and playing hard and staying in line," he says. "Willie Hurst took me under his wing and really helped me out when I was a freshman. I try to be there for younger players like he was for me."
The first in his family to attend college, Cunningham is an American Ethnic Studies major, but is undecided as to a career. Whatever it is, it will almost certainly be related to football -- Cunningham's work ethic and drive to succeed have that market cornered.