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"Mabel was the backbone, the stabilizing force. She had the discipline and the values, and she instilled them in her sons," says Nettie Hyde. She is sitting in the parlor of her home in Oakland. Nettie is Mabel's sister. "I lived with them on Santa Barbara Avenue, down by the railroad tracks, long before Sam bought the house on Murrell and they moved," she says. "Mabel didn't spare the rod. Even after the boys became big and athletic, she'd say, I don't care if I have to stand on a stool, I can still knock you down.' "
She sighs and asks if her guest would like some tea. Her home is spotless, like a doll's house. Inside the house is another house, this one doll-sized, with tiny bedspreads and curtains Hyde made by hand. She pulls out a photo album of the Cook sisters and their families. "Look at Randall. He hasn't changed," says Hyde, pointing to a photo. "I brought him home from the hospital. Seems like yesterday."
Mabel was a nurse. Sam Sr., a strapping Texan with a smile like a half-moon and big ideas, worked mostly as a redcap and porter for the Southern Pacific railroad. But the big ideas ended for big Sam after he lost his job when the railroad cut back its routes while little Sam was in junior high. Sam Sr. watched the jets fly overhead and brooded about the demise of train travel.
"My father was a wonderful man," says Bruce. "He was hard on us, especially Randall. He was the baby, so my father would have to yell at him sometimes, so he wouldn't be spoiled. Randall was wild and crazy and happy, once. All the warnings my father gave us—about developing a skill and not waiting for people to give you a break or to like you, because they wouldn't—were over our heads. We didn't understand. It's all clear now."
Sam Sr. and Mabel separated when Sam was at USC, though they would reconcile years later. In the meantime, Anthony lived with his father. Bruce and Randall stayed with their mother. "You have to understand my family to understand Randall," says Bruce. "I know I trip on death, worry about it, because of what happened. Sometimes I think, Life is hard, then you die. I know Randall does, too. But as a football player, Randall worked for it and got it."
"She had herself some sons, didn't she?" says Hyde. "And I think nobody misses her like Randall does. And I do."
Randall calls his aunt Nettie often. "I am a link for Randall, yes," she says. "He loved his mother so. Once he was mad about something, a bad game, and he shouted at me. I told him to please remember who he was talking to. I know you're hurt, but don't raise your voice to me. I tell him to make himself proud. Make the memory of his parents proud, make me and his brothers proud, but make himself proud first."
Tomorrow in Sports
Cunningham does not signal the advent of magisterial black quarterbacks with arms like crossbows and legs like Gale Sayers's any more than Magic Johnson signaled the advent of 6'9" point guards with eyes in their ears and a dribble like Cousy's.
Yet the day will come when Cunningham can no longer sprint past the rush and slither his way downfield, when he will have to run the game from the pocket, because that's the nature of the position.