Seattleite Spotlight: Renaissance Man Ed Cunningham

From Rose Bowl champion to Oscar winner.

Ed Cunningham has enjoyed a truly distinguished football career. His achievements include five seasons as an offensive lineman in the NFL (one with the Seahawks), a 15-year network broadcasting career and a 2011 Academy Award for producing the high school gridiron documentary, Undefeated. But before all that, Cunningham was beloved by Seattleites as the captain of the Rose Bowl-winning 1991 UW Husky football squad.

Is it really true that you gained 70 pounds between your freshman and senior year of high school?

That sounds about right. I had a huge growth spurt from 5th to 8th grade, and went from a chubby kid to a beanpole. Being from outside of Washington, D.C., I loved the Redskins, and at that time, the most popular players on the team were the offensive linemen, who were known as the Hogs. So when I went out for freshman football, and the coaches told us to lineup where we’d like to play, I headed right for the line, and began my journey of gaining enough weight to try and get a college scholarship as a lineman.

Years before you suited up in a Seahawks jersey, you wore the purple and gold as a center for the Huskies. What were your initial impressions as a Seattle athlete?

I hated Seattle, at first. I was homesick and the people were so different than where I was from (I still don’t get the allure of Birkenstocks), so I felt a bit like a foreigner. But, as I started to make friends and establish a foundation of support, it became a place I now cherish. Not only was I in Seattle for one of the greatest eras of Husky football, but the music scene during those years was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Because of the grunge movement, every band in the world had to make tour stops in Seattle, and many of them couldn’t compete against the local bands for crowds. So, for a big live music fan, getting to see a band like The Replacements for $5 in a half-full Moore Theatre was pretty sweet.

Ed Cunningham then, as starting center for the Dawgs…

During your later years as a Husky, the team claimed back-to-back Rose Bowl victories and ended the 1991 season with a perfect record. Describe your experience as captain of this legendary squad.

It’s hard to explain how special that season was, but I’m reminded of it every year covering college football. We were so focused and in the moment (I don’t recall that team ever having even one bad practice) that it began feeling predetermined we’d win it all. We’d lost a heartbreaker to UCLA in ‘90 that likely cost us a national championship, and that was a huge motivating factor. To be that good and get that close and then overlook a worthy opponent was a lesson that served us well in ‘91.

How did you grow as an athlete between your graduation from UW and your return as a Seahawk four years later?

Physically, I don’t think I was quite where I was when I left the UW. The NFL is a grind, and it became harder each passing year to get back into top-flight form. Most of my improvement was from the experience of having to block some of the best defenders to ever play the game when I was with the Cardinals. Reggie White, Lawrence Taylor, Leon Lett. You learn a lot about technique when you face these types of athletes.

Who was the toughest NFL defender you faced off against?

Dan Saleaemua of the Chiefs. For whatever reason, his combination of strength and speed was tough for me, and he was very short, so I couldn’t get under him properly to gain a leverage advantage. My last start in the NFL was against him at the Kingdome, and he flat out destroyed me. I got benched the next week, so at least I can say I went out on the bottom.

Your 1996 season with the Seahawks was also your final season in the NFL. What are your memories of playing in the Kingdome?

I loved the Kingdome. I was a better player on turf than on natural grass, so that helped, but when that place got going, it was so hard on the opponent. Plus, I’d seen a few games there when I was in college and dreamed of playing in the NFL, so it was cool to be able to play in a building that seemed so hard to reach just a few years earlier.

You slimmed down after your retirement from pro football – no small feat for a former lineman. How did you lose your ‘center weight’?

…and Ed Cunningham today, with his dog Maya.

I think I’m more in line with my natural body size now, so it wasn’t that difficult. I’d eaten so much food starting my freshman year in high school, that just eating like a normal human really helped. I also did a ton of research about food and what we eat and why, and learned that starch on top of starch is probably not the right way to get your calories.

What inspired you to go into broadcasting?

During my senior year at the UW, I did a weekly radio show called ‘Rock N’ Roses’ with Spike O’Neill on the Bob Rivers Twisted Radio show. I learned a ton about broadcasting from those guys, and it also caught the ear of the GM of KTAR in Phoenix. After my rookie year with the Cardinals, he called and asked me to guest-host their evening sports show. The next day I was offered a regular weekly show, and I quickly realized that broadcasting could be a great post-football career.

How did announcing from the booth change your perspective of the game?

While playing, you tend to be hyper-focused on your job and the strategy of the game from your position’s point of view. As a color analyst, I believe you have to think more like a coach and see the whole field and understand the game on more of a macro level.

Since 1997, you’ve called football games for four different networks, including ABC, CBS and ESPN. What has been your most memorable on-air moment?

I was lucky enough to be on the radio call of the [2007] Fiesta Bowl when Boise State beat Oklahoma with big trick play after big trick play. It was simply magical to watch that game unfold.

In 2004, you produced New York Doll, a biographical documentary about singer Arthur ‘Killer’ Kane. Was that a weird transition, bowl games to glam rock? 

I didn’t know who the New York Dolls were when I first started working on that project. It was during the off-season and I had time to do other work, so I jumped at the chance to help produce the film without even really understanding what I was getting into. To me, announcing is about preparation and research, so I just went to work learning as much as I could about the band and Arthur. To me, NYD is a story about making the most of second chances, so on a thematic level, it actually parallels nicely to many stories I’ve covered in football over the years.

In 2006, you signed on to produce another documentary, The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters. What was it about Steve Wiebe and his quest to defeat reigning Donkey Kong champ Billy Mitchell that inspired you to help tell his story?

There were many times along the path of KofK where we thought we’d hit a dead end, and one of the most concerning was after we first met and filmed Steve Wiebe. We’d just started getting some background on the sub-culture of competitive classic gaming, and we were looking for a head to head match-up on a recognizable game. Everyone we talked to in the classic gaming world continually brought up the heated battle on Donkey Kong, but we were concerned that Steve was just too nice a guy for us to completely focus on his quest. For several weeks we researched several other games and the people chasing the world records on them, and then we took our first trip to film Billy Mitchell. From our first day in Hollywood, Fla., when Billy wouldn’t even confirm he’d meet with us before we got to his family’s restaurant, it was obvious Billy was quite different from Steve. Ultimately, it was the juxtaposition of these two very different people that gave us the confidence it was worth making this the focus of the finished film.

King of Kong was an audience favorite at several film festivals, including SXSW and Tribeca. During production, did you have any idea the film would be so popular?

Not at all. We were just hoping to complete a film that was good enough to not lose any money. But that all changed when we first showed the film to an audience, and couldn’t believe their enthusiasm afterwards. We thought we’d made an entertaining film, but the life this movie has had is beyond anything we ever imagined.

In 2010, you teamed up with Kong director Seth Gordon to produce Undefeated, a documentary about a high school football team from Memphis. What can we all learn from the Manassas Tigers and Coach Bill Courtney?

Bill Courtney never waivers in his belief that hard work, integrity, and discipline are the keys to success in any endeavor. I think what the film shows is that no matter your starting point…and for some of the kids in the film, it is shocking to see where their lives are starting…that with the right work ethic and support system, you can achieve more than you thought possible.

In February 2011, you and your fellow Undefeated producers picked up an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. So, what’s it like to win an Oscar?

It is staggering. You simply have no idea how big a deal it is to win an Oscar until it happens, and I’m still not sure I’ve grasped it. From the sheer number of people who watch the broadcast to how respected the award is inside and outside the film community, it is hard to put it into context. Ultimately, the thing that makes me the proudest is that a small team of dedicated and focused filmmakers did everything in their power to make the best out of what they had and were up against, and it paid off with a piece of work that was worthy of this level of recognition.

Do you have any upcoming film projects in the works?

I’m slowly transitioning into television, as it is very hard to make a good living producing feature length documentaries. I’m lucky to have the ‘day job’ of calling football games, but I’m at a time in my life personally and professionally where I want the amount of effort you have to put in to produce something to be matched by the potential financial upside in success.

What are your thoughts on the upcoming Husky season?

It’s a question of how much better they can get on defense. I covered Tennessee a few times last year and I think Justin Wilcox [the new defensive coordinator for UW] was a good hire. But, they have a long way to go, and their schedule against the South division is brutal – USC, Utah and [Arizona Wildcats coach] Rich Rodriguez with some talent. If they break .500 in conference, I’d think of that as a very successful year.

TV viewers can catch Ed every Saturday throughout the 2012-13 NCAA Football season. Tune into ABC at 9 a.m. on Saturday, Sept. 8, to catch his commentary during the match-up between Penn State and Virginia.