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Nov. 17, 2012
Bennie Cunningham (Clemson, 1973-75) was the prototypical tight end for the football teams of coach Red Parker during the middle 1970s. He lettered three years for the Tigers, leading the team in pass receptions in 1973 and 1974. He was named first-team All-ACC in 1974 and 1975. A two-time first-team All-America, he earned consensus All-America honors in 1974. He completed his Clemson career with 64 receptions for 1,044 yards and 17 touchdowns. He was the recipient of Clemson's Frank Howard Award for 1974-75, as the top student-athlete who brought honor to Clemson. The 28th overall selection in the first round of the 1976 NFL Draft by the Pittsburgh Steelers, he played 10 seasons in the NFL, all with the Steelers. He completed his professional career with 202 receptions for 2,879 yards and 20 touchdowns. In 1984 he was inducted into the Clemson Hall of Fame. In 2003, Cunningham was the only tight end chosen to the ACC's 50th Anniversary Team in 2003, as one of the Top 50 players in league history. A native of Seneca, S.C., he currently resides in Westminster, S.C.
Being an Upstate South Carolina guy, were you always a Clemson fan growing up?
Yes, pretty much so, I have to say. I grew up in Seneca, which is about eight miles from Clemson. This is home, and I am originally from Laurens, South Carolina, which again is very close.
So as a lifelong Tiger, did you jump right on the offer to attend school and play football there when it came your way?
Oh yes, no question.
You led Clemson in receptions two of your seasons, which is a rare feat for a tight end in any era. Was there something about the offense that made you a primary receiver?
Probably my best year was my junior year, 1974. During that time, we were running the veer offense. We had Coach (Red) Parker, who came from The Citadel. He became our head coach my sophomore year. He put in the veer, which was a run-oriented offense, a triple-option offense. I was just able to get the ball a lot. We were basically a run-oriented team, but we had some plays where I would split out into a slot position, almost a pro-set, and I caught a lot of passes from that set.
We see more and more tight end formations in the NFL today. Do you feel like you were ahead of your time in some ways?
To some extent, I guess, because we did run that quite a bit, and that's where I caught most of my passes. Steve Fuller is a quarterback a lot of people remember at Clemson, but my best year catching the ball was actually my junior year under a guy named Mark Fellers. We had a lot of problems at the quarterback position before Mark took over, and then he started throwing it to me, and it started working. You kind of go with what is working at the time. I was a big guy - I weighed about 250 or 255 at the time - and they just got me the ball and let me run with it.
Back at the time you played, those of us who followed the ACC thought the conference possibly had the two best tight ends in America when you were at Clemson and Charles Waddell was at North Carolina. Did you kind of keep an eye on what he was doing?
Oh, I knew Charles, most certainly. Also, at the time I played, there was a tight end at Maryland by the name of Walter White. He was drafted by Pittsburgh before I was, and when I got to Pittsburgh he was traded to Kansas City. But he, too, was a good tight end in the ACC during that time.
Your years at Clemson probably fell short of what you wanted in terms of wins and losses. But the school had had some great football teams in the past, and could you sense that maybe things were starting to take a turn for the better again while you were there?
Certainly. During my junior year, we went 7-4. It was one of those years where we started out poorly, but as the season progressed we won more and more games. Unfortunately, the bowl s chose their teams about midway through the season. There were some teams that only won four or five games that still made it to a bowl, but we were shut out.
You were the first African-American student-athlete to receive the Frank Howard Award. What did that mean to you personally?
It was a great award, and I was elated by it. Prior to my coming there as a freshman in 1972, there were only two other black players on the football team, two guys by the name of Willie Anderson and Marion Reeves. Then I came on just after them and wound up with that award. It was just a real proud moment for me.
When 2003 rolled around and the ACC announced its 50th Anniversary Football Team, you were the only tight end who was named. What was your reaction to that?
Again, I was very honored by that, because other positions did have more than one player. To be coming from Clemson made it special for me as well. We weren't the biggest winners during my era, so to still be recognized made it a little more special.
What was your reaction when Clemson's 1981 team won the National Championship?
I was in my sixth season with the Steelers then, and I thought it was fantastic. When I had been at Clemson, 7-4 (record-wise) had been our best year when I was a junior and my senior year we had a very poor season. But we had some good talent that came in that year, guys like Steve Fuller and Jerry Butler. I helped recruit those guys, and they sort of just kept building from that. So in '81, when they had that championship year, it's like everything came to fruition. Sitting up in Pittsburgh, watching them play and all of that happen, it was just like watching things bloom.
You had a great run with the Steelers and you spent your whole career with them. Obviously, that must have been a good situation for you.
Oh, no question about it. When I got there from Clemson, they had just won their second Super Bowl in a row. And then we won two more Super Bowls in '78 and '79. So it was the place to be. They were a winning ball club, and you always want to be with a winner.
When you were drafted by them did your eyes light up? They were already winning big, and you were walking into a great situation.
Yes, and being drafted in the first round ... It was just a great time to be with Pittsburgh. When I got drafted, I started wondering exactly where I would fit in and wondered if they would really need me. But I was able to come in and get into a starting position. They wanted to pass to the tight end more, even though we still didn't do it as much as some teams did.
You were part of one play there that is still ranked by many as one of the great plays in NFL history - the flea flicker that won the game against the Browns in overtime in '78. Do you get asked about that a lot?
That is probably my most noted play. I was surprised when I went up to visit the NFL Hall of Fame, and they had it on display up there. I had taken my kids up there with me, and they got to see it. My daughter was born in 1984, and I retired in 1985, so they really don't know much about me playing football. I was glad they could see that, so I could tell them, `You see, I really did play.'
That was a wild play. Was that something you had practiced for a long time and were holding back?
No, we had practiced it one time. We put it in a couple of days before the game, and it really didn't work in practice. Our coach, of course, was Chuck Noll, and he wasn't known for trickery. So I was surprised when they brought it into the huddle.
You are now a career counselor. Is that what you went into immediately after you left the NFL?
Almost. I've worked in the school system as a career counselor for almost 22 years now.
Do the students know who you are, and do you tell them a lot of football stories?
I think they hear a lot of it from their parents. And living here in Seneca, I am around people that I grew up with. They've told their sons and daughters about me, even about the days when I played high school ball.
Did you always plan to go back home and settle down, even when you were playing with the Steelers?
Oh, yes. When I played professionally, I always came back here during the offseason. My father, who's still living, and my brothers, all live here in the same area. It is home, and I enjoy it. I wouldn't go anywhere else.