Keeping Score: A football lifer from Greenfield

  • Gunther Cunningham, left, and Bill Phelps in 2000. Contributed Photo

  • Bill Phelps, left, and Gunther Cunningham, center, as kids. Contributed Photo

Published: 5/24/2019 9:14:59 PM
Modified: 5/24/2019 9:14:43 PM

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Former NFL assistant coach Gunther Cunningham, who died on May 11 at age 72, spent part of his childhood in Greenfield. He was was born in Munich in 1946, and grew up about a mile from the Dachau concentration camp. He never knew his real father, but his mother Rene married a U.S. Air Force pilot who moved them stateside when he was ten years old.

Garner Cunningham was stationed at Westover and about to be re-deployed overseas. Before he left, he found his family a home at No. 22 Oak Courts off of Conway Street in Greenfield.

Of course, Gunther wasn’t the only kid from Germany to be transplanted after the war. Another boy who lived in Franklin County awoke one morning to see swastiskas painted on his parents’ home. There were three reasons that didn’t happen to Cunningham: football, friendship and size.

“He was huge,” said Bill Phelps. “He was real big for his age. If you got him mad watch out. That’s why I got to be his friend real early.”

Phelps lived on nearby Wells Street and was en route to becoming a three-sport athlete at GHS. After he graduated in 1965, he joined the Army and did a 22-month tour of duty in Vietnam. “Gunther couldn’t speak English,” said Phelps. “He’d come over and talk to my grandparents in German because they were from Austria. My grandfather emigrated in 1922. He lost two brothers who were annexed into the war on the German side.”

Phelps befriended Cunningham while they were both in the fifth grade at the North Parish School. “All Gunther wanted to do was play soccer. Those first two years were his toughest. He wasn’t all that cool yet but then he beat up some guys. They’d stir him up and he’d go after them.”

Football was immensely popular in those days, and Cunningham and Phelps were two of the five seventh graders who survived the cuts to play for the junior high school team. The other three, according to Phelps, were Jeff Neal, Fran Yestramski and the late Billy Prescott. “Every year he got stronger and better,” said Phelps. “He could kick the ball 60 yards into the end zone when he was in the eighth grade.

“He wanted to play fullback so he could wear No. 44 because he loved Ernie Davis from Syracuse. We nicknamed him ‘Gunner 44’ and when other teams tore up his jersey he’d bring it to his mother who’d sew it up in time for the next game.”

Garner Cunningham had been assigned to a West Coast air base, and Gunther’s last summer in town was like a scene from American Graffiti. “He had turned 16 in June and had his driver’s license. We partied all that summer and went to Hampton Beach. He left in late August, 1962. He got on the bus and was gone. We talked in 1965 when I was in the Army, but lost touch.”

After high school Cunningham enrolled at the University of Oregon where he was the Ducks’ linebacker and placekicker. He told sportswriter Joe Posnanski that football let him vent his rage. “We used to play this game called bull in the ring. There was this big guy in the middle and we formed a circle around him. I rushed up and that big guy went down hard. Then I went in the circle and nobody could knock me down. I had so much anger inside me and I finally knew what to do with it all.”

After he graduated from Oregon, Cunningham became the Ducks’ defensive line coach, the start of a career that spanned 12 teams in 48 years, including 18 seasons in the NFL and two as the Kansas City Chiefs head coach.

“In 1982, I’m watching the Baltimore Colts and they said the line coach was Gunther Cunningham and I about fell off the couch,” said Phelps. “Fran and I went to see him when the Chiefs played the Patriots in 2000 and we spoke for about a half hour, and that was the last time I saw him.”

They were fortunate they got 30 minutes, considering it’s easier to be granted a visit with the Pope than it is to talk to a football coach during the season. “Football coaches are, by their nature, obsessive, fanatical, pathological even,” Posnanski wrote on kansas.com. “They sleep in their offices, they coach and watch film until they’re bleary and spent. We’ve all heard the stories. Gunther took it to a whole other level, but away from the field his gruff voice went soft and he spoke sweetly about so many things.”

Indeed, his death prompted an outpouring of heartfelt sentiment from coaches and sportswriters everywhere. An anecdote shared by Yahoo Sports’ Eric Edholm best summed up what made Cunningham genuine and endearing: “Years ago at the Senior Bowl, Gunther walked behind the bench and launched into a three minute, profanity-laced tirade — about Gatorade flavors.”

“There was not,” Edholm concluded, “another like him.”

SQUIBBERS: Greenfield native Kurt Hahn made the six-hour drive from his South Dakota home to Denver to watch Cale Makar. “I got to see his first game and his first goal with the Avs,” wrote Hahn. “He’s the real deal. Go Bruins.” … As of Friday, tickets for Monday’s Bruins game at TD Garden ranged from between $600 to $1,800 on the secondary market, and seats at the Enterprise Center in St. Louis started at $900… Deerfield native Crosby Hunt was at Charlotte Airport on Monday. “I look to my left — Darryl Strawberry — I say, ‘Excuse me sir, aren’t you Darryl Strawberry? No response. I ask again — then a third time. He finally says, ‘Yeah.’ I ask for his autograph. He obliges with a wavy swirl I surmise says Strawberry. I ask what he’s doing now. ‘A preacher,’ he says. Preacher my ass. Still a thug. Then again, airports make me into a crazy man.” …. Red Sox announcer Dave O’Brien called Andrew Benintendi’s game-saving catch off Alex Bregman in the ALCS “maybe the greatest in Red Sox history.” Really? Dwight Evans’ catch of Joe Morgan’s drive in the 11th inning of Game Six of the 1975 World Series set the stage for Carlton Fisk’s home run off the foul pole. Evans ran back, leapt and nearly fell into the seats in the deepest part of right field to catch Morgan’s blast off Dick Drago. … Robinson Cano’s strained quad wouldn’t cut it with Dick Williams, who once told a reporter, “When I played, we didn’t have quads.”

Chip Ainsworth is an award-winning columnist who has penned his observations about sports for four decades in the Pioneer Valley. He can be reached by email at sports@recorder.com.

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