At just 48, Ed Cunningham was far from the end of his career in front of the lens. But he gave it all up.
Football was his life. He played the game in high school, college and in the pros before becoming a college football commentator. He still calls himself a jock, yet says the game is no longer for him.
He says college players don’t have a voice so he’s speaking up for them. He fears the dangers of football are falling on deaf ears And he wants the discussion about brain injury to be heard loud and clear.
“I didn’t feel right having a job that I was morally so conflicted," he said. "The game is created for bodies to collide. Therein lies a really inherent danger.”
The former offensive lineman helped the University of Washington win the 1991 national championship title. Outspoken as a player and a leader among his peers, he was the team captain. As a third round draft pick he then went on to play five years with the NFL before hanging up his uniform and heading for the broadcast booth. For 20 years he was a college football analyst. The last 12 of them were spent with ESPN.
Last spring, 100 of his colleagues at the network were let go. Cunningham was not one of them, yet on that very day, he resigned.
“There was a relief when I called my boss that DAY,” he says. “Because I was hiding my truth. My truth was I have real concerns about the game and its safety and I was being paid well to talk about the game… I felt a little fraudulent.”
At the time he told his bosses it was the constant travel and demands of fatherhood that made him walk away. It took him nearly six months to come clean about the truth, he says.
“I had a great job, great bosses. … I loved the people I worked with… I was paid well for the job, so it went against a lot of sort of things that were really good. But it was that one thing that made it really hard to keep doing.”
So now Cunningham is producing movies like “Undefeated” full time. He won an Oscar for the documentary in 2012 when he was just moonlighting.
While Cunningham is quick to commend the NFL and college ball for making some changes to the sport over the years, he also says the game being played today is nothing like it was when he was on the field.
“They are playing more seasons, longer games and they are bigger and a little better trained than when I played. I played at a super high level, so I know,” he says. “The physics don’t work all the time. It’s hard to watch the game sometimes.”
These days, for your modern-day lineman, the most popular body type for the position is 6’3” and 300 pounds. Back in the ‘80s when the game was really taking off, that player didn’t even exist.
Fellow players and friends from over the years diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy or CTE have left him thinking. Friends like former Chicago Bear Dave Duerson.
“Dave Duerson was a guy I really looked up to,” Cunningham said.
The two were teammates in Arizona. In 2011, Duerson shot himself in the chest so his brain could be used for research on the effects of CTA. Now Cunningham proudly calls his old friend an inspiration.
“My affection for Dave is almost more pure now because I’ve just come to the fact that it’s a dangerous game.”
The game that stopped him in his tracks professionally was the 2016 season opener, North Carolina vs. Denver. Play after play, the helmet to helmet blows were too much for Cunningham to bear.
“I had an emotional reaction to last season’s early Denver Carolina game when, in my opinion, Cam Newton was just abused. He was abused,” he says.
These days, as a film producer now living in L.A. his focus is closer to home on his two preschool aged boys.
“People said what I did was a principled thing,” he says. “One of the hardest things is being a principled parent. I think that’s a really difficult job. … My principles right now - we’re not going to play football.”
“The truth is there are people who are dying from brain injuries that they suffer from the game,” he says. “We all as a society have to say, is this worth it? To what end are we willing to do this?”
Cunningham thinks Chicago is an educated, practical, Midwestern sports town and the perfect place for this discussion to take place. We know it already has: schools, park districts already showing signs that parents are re-thinking their kids’ role in the game of football, by shutting down programs with low participation.
Cunningham goes on to say that he doesn’t know what the game of football will look like in 20 years from now, but he does know it will look different.