I have to admit, this is one of the hardest columns I have had to write.
As we all know, Clemson lost one of its own on Monday morning with the passing of former tight end Bennie Cunningham. Bennie, who was just 63 years young, was one of the greats, and not just on the football field.
What made Bennie great was his demeanor, his outlook on life, and most importantly, the way he made you feel.
Bennie, even when his health started to decline a few years ago, was always happy, or at least made it appear that way. His goal in his later years was to always make sure the young people in Oconee County were passionate about life and what they wanted to do with that passion.
Growing up in South Carolina, Bennie Cunningham was my favorite player. There was a simple explanation. Bennie played at my favorite college and played for my favorite NFL team. I, like a lot of young people in South Carolina in those days, looked up to Bennie. He was our hero, if you will.
Bennie, even though I did not know him at the time, was on a high pedestal, one that no one in the sports world could reach.
I never saw Bennie play at Clemson. I was too young at the time to remember him wearing the Orange and White. However, my stepdad told me all about him as I got older.
He would tell me how Bennie was ahead of his time and he was arguably the greatest player to have ever played at Clemson. Those were pretty strong words considering my stepdad went to Clemson with Fred Cone and was coached by Banks McFadden. He also saw guys like Jerry Butler, Steve Fuller and Jeff Davis play.
But my stepdad was adamant, though. In his opinion, Bennie Cunningham was the greatest player he ever saw at Clemson. He kept that opinion with him until the day he died. Of course I never argued his point. To me, Bennie was the greatest. After all, he wore the Black & Gold and won two Super Bowl titles with my beloved Pittsburgh Steelers.
I remember the first time I saw Bennie play. It was in Super Bowl XIV against the Los Angeles Rams in 1980. Bennie made a block on the outside that allowed Franco Harris to score the Steelers’ first touchdown that afternoon. My dad, who loved the Steelers and was born and raised in Pittsburgh, pointed Bennie out to me.
Looking back, my dad, who was a huge sports fan, liked the fact I was showing so much interest in sports and the Steelers so he wanted to make sure I knew Bennie was from South Carolina and he went to Clemson.
Over the next seven seasons, as my passion for football, Clemson and the Steelers grew and grew, I watched Bennie play for my Steelers. I let every Steelers fan I came in contact with know that Bennie was a Clemson Man and he was from my home state.
When Bennie decided to retire from football after the 1985 season, I was sad. My football hero had called it a career. I could not watch him play anymore.
I never forgot Bennie, though. I collected football trading cards and such from his playing days. The years of course passed and I began my own career as a sportswriter, something I wanted to do since I was nine years old.
In the spring of 2004 I accept a job at the Seneca Journal covering Clemson athletics. The first assignment I was given was to go to West Oak High School in Westminster, S.C., where he worked as a career guidance counselor, and interview Bennie Cunningham, who was going to be enshrined in the South Carolina Athletic Hall of Fame.
I was floored! My first assignment covering Clemson and I get to write a story about my childhood hero, are you kidding me?
Of course, I stayed professional and did not say anything about being a lifelong Steelers fan or the fact I grew up a Clemson fan and Bennie was my idol growing up. I had a job to do. I’m a trained journalist and I will act as such.
So I called Bennie up at the high school and set up an interview to do later that week.
When I first met Bennie Cunningham, the person, I could see time had changed him. He no longer had his hair. He had since shaved it all off. He was still tall of course and big, but was a little thinner than I remembered. You could tell he had dropped a little bit of his playing weight.
As I started to walk around campus with Bennie and saw how he interacted with all of his students, it was obvious he was not Bennie Cunningham the two-time All-American from Clemson or Bennie Cunningham the two-time Super Bowl Champion from the Pittsburgh Steelers. No, he was just Mr. Cunningham.
In fact, not one student that I talked to knew he even played football, much less was a star at Clemson and played for the greatest organization in pro sports.
To him, he was just Mr. Cunningham and Bennie was prouder of that than anything he did at Clemson or in Pittsburgh.
As I talked with Bennie and others who knew him, I discovered there was more to him than just being a football player. He loved his family. He was passionate about his job as a career guidance counselor. He loved his hometown of Seneca, S.C. He loved the community he worked so hard for and more than anything he loved helping young people discover their passion in life.
That day, Bennie and I talked for three hours. We of course talked about his playing days at Clemson, and he gave me some great stories, some I have written about and some I never will. We talked about his playing days in Pittsburgh and what it was like being a part of what is still considered the greatest dynasty in the history of the NFL. We talked about his Steeler teammates and what it was like playing for a legendary head coach in Chuck Noll.
But then Bennie did something that caught me off guard. He wanted to talk about me. He wanted to know my story and how I became a sportswriter. And the thing I noticed, he was genuinely interested.
That afternoon in his small office at West Oak High School—where he had no memorable from his playing days, just notes from the students thanking him for all he had done for them and awards and special recognitions he had received as a guidance counselor—Bennie and I became friends.
Bennie loved my story and my passion for being a sportswriter so much he asked me to come speak to his students at West Oak High School several times, and as a speaker during the school district’s career day.
Over the years, Bennie and I talked a lot, about a lot of things, mostly about the Steelers and Tigers. He was always willing to help me with stories by providing a quote or info from his playing days. He loved Clemson and he loved Pittsburgh. He always bragged about both, but never about himself.
Bennie did not have to brag about himself, though. Others, like me, did that for him and without his knowledge.
If you knew Bennie, you did not brag about him being a star football player. You bragged about the kind of person he was. He genuinely cared about other people. He cared about his students and what became of them.
Bennie was one of the nicest guys I have ever met. Like he was to so many people, Bennie was my hero, my mentor and my friend.
You will be missed my friend, but you will always be in our hearts and in our memories.