A mended Cunningham returns to Eagles eager to win

September 06, 1992|By Jack McCaffery | Jack McCaffery,Contributing Writer

PHILADELPHIA -- For a month-to-month update on the medical progress of Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Randall Cunningham, it never was necessary to glance at his surgically repaired knee.

No, all it took was a glimpse at his headgear du jour.

The fashion show began not long after the former Pro Bowl quarterback was popped by Green Bay Packer Bryce Paup in the first game of the 1991 season, shredding Cunningham's left medial collateral and posterior cruciate knee ligaments.

First, Cunningham limped into Veterans Stadium wearing an embroidered baseball cap reading, "I'll be back . . . scrambling."

This summer, Cunningham strolled into training camp at West Chester University under a cap emblazoned with, "He's back . . . scrambling."

Then, midway through last week, on the eve of his return as the Eagles' most important offensive weapon, Cunningham said he would not wear either hat any more. "Just this one," he said, smiling. It was a plain green cap, with a white Eagle on the front.

The message: The individual pursuit of physical well-being is over. Randall Cunningham is a quarterback again.

Today at Veterans Stadium, Cunningham will complete the longest, most difficult scramble of his professional life when he steps behind center David Alexander and attempts to push the Eagles to where they have not been since Super Bowl XV.

Fully a calendar year after leaving Lambeau Field in a prone position in the back of a flatbed mini-truck, Cunningham will be an able and complete participant in a for-keeps game against the New Orleans Saints.

"What really is going to pop into my mind I think, is the decision I made after I was injured, when they carried me into the locker room," Cunningham was saying, attempting to predict his emotions as he exits the clubhouse tunnel, "I said, 'Now is the time to make up my mind that I am going to be back.' "

Rich Kotite replaced the colorful Buddy Ryan as the Eagles coach before last season, saw his quarterback injured in the first quarter of the first game, then spent the rest of the season trying to recover under a cast that included Jim McMahon, rookie Brad Goebel, Pat Ryan and Jeff Kemp. Combined, they helped the defensive-minded Eagles to 10 victories -- not enough for a playoff spot.

So when Cunningham, 29, reported to training camp healthy, Kotite, former sparring partner for Muhammad Ali, neither bobbed nor weaved. Cunningham was his quarterback, McMahon the backup. And the notoriously impatient Philadelphia football fans will have to see for themselves what Cunningham claims to know. That is, Randall -- the real Randall -- is back.

"I think they saw the same Randall Cunningham in the preseason game in Atlanta," said Cunningham, who uncorked runs of 40, 20 and 11 yards in an abbreviated preseason appearance in the Georgia Dome. "I mean, to gain for 74 yards in a quarter and four plays, well, that's kind of ridiculous. But that's just the style that I have and I enjoy it."

Cunningham rushed just eight times and threw but 22 passes in the preseason, but was a full training camp participant, running the offense daily and receiving most of the practice reps. He will wear a knee brace, which he says is not as uncomfortable.

The free agent acquisition of the explosive Walker -- should he return to form after a lukewarm stay in Minnesota -- may relieve some of the rushing pressure from Cunningham, who at times in the late '80s and early '90s doubled as the team's top passer and runner. But Cunningham insists he will not alter his scrambling, gambling style.

By 1990, when he tossed 30 touchdown passes, Cunningham was following a road map to greatness, a Pro Bowl quarterback hovering among the very best in the sport.

So now it's on to the rest of his career.

He said he would, "be back, scrambling."

His hats evidently do not lie.

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