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ON CAMPUS A look at the area college sports scene

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Cunningham embraces leadership role with SCSU

NEW HAVEN — Jerome Cunningham stepped on to his rocky crossroad a day after his sophomore season on the Southern Connecticut State football team had ended.

Entering SCSU as an all-stater from Crosby High School in Waterbury, Cunningham dreamed of posting numbers among the nation’s best, numbers that would catch professional scouts’ eyes.
Jerome Cunningham, center, runs a pattern

At 6-4, 240 pounds, his size, speed and strength were unmatched in high school.

He helped Crosby end Ansonia’s 35-game winning streak in 2008, and his future on the gridiron looked limitless. But after two seasons at SCSU, the pass-catching tight end had just 22 total catches for 238 yards.

“Everyone dreams of playing in the NFL when they start college football,” Cunningham said. “They all want to play in the pros.

“After my sophomore season I stepped back and looked at my numbers. I wasn’t happy. I was just in a low self-esteem. I was feeling opposite feelings towards the team.”

Cunningham didn’t know what to do. He thought about transferring or taking a year off from football.

“I was thinking about going to UConn (or another Division I school), but I didn’t know anyone up there,” he said.

“I did when I was in high school. I thought about taking a year off, but in the end I thought about my little brothers.

“I didn’t want them to look at me and see that quitting on your team is OK. Once you quit on your team, it’s like you’ve quit on life.”

Cunningham said that if he did step away, he most likely would have never come back.

Then he thought about his brothers, the ones at home who now play at Crosby, and the ones on the SCSU sidelines.

He came back with a purpose.

Cunningham currently leads the Owls (1-4) in receptions (19) and yards (205). He has also developed into one of the top blocking tight ends in the conference.

“Every game he’s been consistent,” SCSU coach Rich Cavanaugh said. “There’s a lot of things you don’t see him do as a tight end. You see him running his patterns and catching balls and running after the catch, but for the things that we do offensively, you have to have a good blocking tight end who’s athletic.

“He’s an awesome blocker.”

And he’s accepted that role.

“Since I been at Southern we’ve always had a great back,” Cunningham said. “I knew I was going to have to block first. I blocked for Jarom Freeman, John Wiechman, Rashaad Slowley. Now we have Vaughn Magee.”

Magee rushed for 297 yards and four touchdowns in the Owls’ first win of the season last week, a 45-34 decision over Saint Anselm.

Cunningham still says he’ll pursue a professional career after his final year at Southern has ended. He just has perspective now.

“I’m just a team player. I don’t care if I have zero catches and zero yards,” he said. “As long as we win I’m happy. When I first came here I thought about (the NFL). I still do. I think about it all the time. I’ll pursue it, but I’m working on getting my degree. I’ve got to focus on that.”

But what Cunningham relishes most is his role as a leader.

He walked onto the field with linebacker Jack Cooper as team captain for the pre-game handshake.

“It was weird,” Cunningham said. “We were running patterns against Yale in the summer, and I realized that everyone was following me. I looked back and realized that I was a leader and I had to do this for my teammates.

“(Serving as a captain) is really special.”

Cunningham entered Southern with Crosby quarterback Dave Gondek, who has since left the sport. The pair connected on a scoring pass in Crosby’s memorable 18-14 win over Ansonia in 2008. But Cunningham realized soon after arriving at SCSU how strong the level of competition truly is there.

“Every year we have a compliance meeting and they tell us how strong the Northeast-10 is,” he said. “It’s a different atmosphere. You’re playing against great athletes who also study the game. They watch film. This is a great league.”

The Owls visit Pace on Saturday for an NE-10 game at 1 p.m.

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