The son of a janitor, Cunningham grew up in the scruffier part of Santa Barbara, Calif., honing his quickness by darting across the highway next to the family house, and went to Nevada-Las Vegas primarily because no other school promised to let him play quarterback. Cunningham has a gentle, arty side. He recently sponsored and appeared in the First Annual Randall Cunningham Celebrity Fashion Blitz for the American Cancer Society.
While coach and quarterback seem as different as salt and pepper, they are united by dreams of excellence. Last Friday, Ryan sat at his desk—behind a sign that reads IF YOU AIN'T THE LEAD DOG, THE SCENERY NEVER CHANGES—and said, "We're not interested in winning division titles. Hell, the only thing we want is to win the Super Bowl."
He sees that same passion in Cunningham. "He doesn't want to be good," said Ryan. "He wants to be great. And he is willing to work to be thataway."
For his part, Cunningham says, "People tell me I could be the best person ever to play this position. That makes me feel good."
That judgment will await another day. After all, in the NFL's arcane system for rating quarterbacks, Johnny Unitas is 16th. Still, Cunningham's confidence knows no bounds. "In my third year of playing Pop Warner quarterback, I led our team to a championship," he says. "In my third year in high school I led my team to a [league] championship. In my third year in college I led my team to a [Pacific Coast Athletic Association] championship. So if I can play three solid years here, I can take this team to the Super Bowl."
He is in his second solid year, but Cunningham already places himself in starry company. "I'm an impact player," he says. "Impact. That is what separates guys like me, Michael [Jordan], Magic and Gretzky from the others. We control our teams. We are confident. It's a proud feeling."
Cunningham has obviously placed himself among the biggies before his record warrants it. The brother of former USC and New England Patriots running back Sam (Bam) Cunningham, Randall went to Philadelphia in 1985 as the 37th player chosen in the draft. He arrived at camp with long, curly hair and a T-shirt that read ANY QUESTIONS? CALL MY AGENT. His first start came in the second game, against the Los Angeles Rams, and he admits he "flunked the test" by throwing four interceptions. By the end of the '85 season he was second string and had done little to dispel the criticism that had been leveled against him: too sandlot, lacks discipline, not smart enough, comes from a second-rate college program.
But in '86, Ryan's first season with the Eagles, Cunningham started improving under the guidance of new quarterback coach Doug Scovil. Ryan even thought up the idea of putting Cunningham in only on third downs in relief of veteran Ron Jaworski. "It was good for him, " says Ryan, who gave Cunningham the starting job in Game 11. Whether getting sacked 72 times was good for him as well is debatable.
In March 1987, Ryan waived the 35-year-old Jaworski, saying the job belonged to Cunningham. "I came here to win the world championship," says Ryan. "I didn't know if the young guy could do it, but I knew the old guy couldn't."
Cunningham rose to the challenge. He got rid of his not-to-be-taken-seriously haircut, and he worked daily with Scovil in the off-season. In lifting the Eagles to a 7-5 record in 12 nonstrike games last season, he completed 55% of his passes for 2,786 yards and 23 touchdowns and led the team in rushing with 505 yards.