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Cunningham comes back

University High football coach was diagnosed with throat cancer. He missed four games, but returned to the Trojans' sidelines.

October 30, 2010|By Devin Ugland, Daily Pilot
(Devin Ugland / Daily…)

Mark Cunningham has been the head football coach at University High for 25 years. A quarter century of battles on the gridiron are miniscule in comparison to his battle to stay alive. Cunningham was diagnosed with throat cancer, which caused him to take a step back from the game he has devoted his life to, in order to focus more on himself. A return to the sidelines now breathes normalcy back into his life.

It's safe to say, he's a different man. One may not see his intensity on display, but his advice to anyone with a cancer diagnosis shows that Cunningham's fiery personality hasn't faded one bit.

"Cancer has become a disease that is not an automatic death sentence; it's a fight," he said. "You do what the doctors ask you to do, and you fight the sucker."

Fight is what Cunningham did. His love for the game helped him.

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Cunningham's football-filled existence, starting with Pop Warner in 1963, to now being a highly respected coach, has been just that: football day in and day out.

"I've been involved with football since 1963, in Pop Warner, and been involved every August from '63 on. This was the first time I didn't participate in August and missed the beginning of the year," Cunningham said.

In every sport, fans refer to players with great feats of longevity as "iron men." In baseball, it's Cal Ripken Jr., in football, Brett Favre. Coaches tend to get lost in this conversation, but Cunningham can be seen as the iron man of high school coaching.

He was put to the test when he was diagnosed with throat cancer, and it caused him to evaluate what is important in life.

"I thought it was going to be worse than it was, but for the first time in my life I realized I needed to take care of myself, instead of worry about other people," he said. "It was a double-edged sword, from the standpoint that I really missed it, but I knew in order to continue to enjoy more in August and the beginning of the season, I'd have to take care of myself."

For the first time in his life, Cunningham put football in the backseat, and focused on himself.

Like every down played in during the course of a game, Cunningham battled the disease, step by step, until he felt he was fully capable of making a return to coaching. It wasn't an easy decision.

"There was a slight hesitation, because I wanted to make sure I was healthy enough," he said. "It wouldn't do me any good to come back and not be able to perform my duties, and do what's right for the kids."

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