Randall Cunningham Was a Surfer!?

Five nuggets from tonight's episode of A Football Life, focusing on Philadelphia's first superstar athlete.

Nov 18, 1990; Philadelphia, PA, USA; FILE PHOTO; Philadelphia Eagles quarterback (7) Randall Cunningham in action against the Atlanta Falcons at Futton County Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Manny Rubio-USA TODAY Sports Copyright Manny Rubio

Photo | Manny Rubio-USA TODAY Sports

The NFL Network’s documentary series A Football Life is must-watch viewing for any fan of the sport. If you’ve seen the excellent episode on Jerome Brown and Reggie White, you know what I’m talking about. (And if you haven’t, check your local listings and stock up on Kleenex.) That tradition continues tonight at 9 p.m. with a look at Randall Cunningham, who was arguably this city’s first superstar athlete—Sports Illustrated cover boy, flashy, infinitely quotable, and a mind for marketing long before every pro saw himself as a brand. Whether you’re a die-hard Eagles nut or a casual fan, here’s why you’ll want to spend an hour with #12.

Randall Revealed as… a Surfer Dude?

Even if you remember the 1985 draft or saw Cunningham ascend to national fame on Monday Night Football against the Giants, there are a few surprising moments in the show. We recall him as the cocky kid out of UNLV, but I don’t think most of us remember that Cunningham grew up in Santa Barbara. “I came from California,” he says. “Go to the beach, shoot the tubes… cool, dude, see you tomorrow. That’s how I grew up.” Shoot the tubes? It’s no wonder he felt a sense of culture shock when he arrived in Philadelphia. “I wasn’t ready for that,” he admits today, and that humility from a guy who arrived at his first training camp in a Porsche is a surprise as well.

Philly in the Spotlight

Despite the fact that Cunningham’s most successful years were in Minnesota, the documentary focuses mostly, and rightly, on his time in Philadelphia. From that first camp—where he wore a T-shirt that read “Any Questions/Ask My Agent”—to his induction to the Eagles’ Ring of Honor, the team and the city play a co-starring role. There’s a slew of familiar local faces who put his legacy in perspective, from Merrill Reese and Ray Didinger, to former teammates Ron Jaworski, Seth Joyner and Fred Barnett (and a brief but revealing comment from Buddy Ryan, who admits he let Randall call the shots). One of my favorite moments is the archival footage of The Randall Cunningham Show on Channel 3, with a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him appearance by co-host Lou Tilley. Cunningham admits he wanted to be like Arsenio Hall, which comes as no surprise to anyone who remembers his gaudy suits and attempts at comedy.

No Punches Pulled

There’s no attempt to gloss over how Cunningham often drove us insane. In retrospect, it’s laughable when the quarterback leaves a pre-season game at halftime to go romp with Whitney Houston on an island for a few days. But imagine if Michael Vick flew to Barbados with Rihanna instead of studying the playbook? The doc also deftly shows how Cunningham still occupies a different head-space than the rest of us. When the QB says his teammates supported his T-shirts and hats with slogans like “Let Me Be Me,” Barnett disagrees. Jaws calls Buddy Ryan’s decision to insert Cunningham on long third-down plays one of the dumbest coaching moves in football history; Randall calls it “genius.”

A Softer Side

I didn’t expect this show to tug on the heartstrings, but the segment about Cunningham’s son Christian, who died in a hot-tub accident, is moving. Especially powerful is a scene from the memorial service, as Cunningham — by then a minister — leads mourners with a smile on his face, insisting they join him in “celebration,” not remorse. He also admits he hated football when he left Philadelphia, and a Sign Man banner at the Vet confirmed the feeling from fans was mutual: “Randall: Don’t Let The Door Hit You In The Ass!!”

Sweet Nostalgia

During the Eagles’ romp in Oakland on Sunday, the Fox broadcast pointed out all of the green and white jerseys in the stands, many of which bore the number 12. Watching those old clips of Ramblin’ Randall in his prime—somersaulting into the end zone, shedding tackles, booting a monster punt—it’s fun, and a little depressing, to think what could have been if Cunningham had matured here instead of in Minnesota, or had more talent around him on offense. (One of Buddy’s sons—a guy named Rex—says if Randall played today, he couldn’t be stopped.) Cunningham—like Chip Kelly today—made Birds-watching interesting again.