Los Alamitos High football coach Ray Fenton took him outside just before the pass to prepare to break the news, and emotions caught in his throat.
Before it all broke out, before TA Cunningham’s name became synonymous with the pitfalls of the era’s name, image and likeness, he was just a kid wanting to play football. And there, on Aug. 28, Fenton had to explain to the Georgia transfer — just ahead of a Florida game on ESPN — that his eligibility was unsettled.
“Coach, don’t worry about that,” Fenton recalled Cunningham’s words. “If it is God’s will that I don’t play this game, then I must bow to his will.”
Before almost every game this season, Los Alamitos assistant Bruce Bible said Cunningham was paying attention and expecting to play. And every time news broke that his hardship waiver hadn’t been approved, he just stepped to the sidelines, and the 6-foot-6, 270-pound junior defenseman literally became the biggest cheerleader on the field.
However, in Friday’s 61-21 win over Newport Harbor, Cunningham had a chance to line up with his teammates and blew up his helmet as he played with the Griffins before the game like Judd Nelson at the end of The Breakfast Club. ran away. The sidelines buzzed with hope, predicting he would roll over the Sailors’ offensive linemen. Quarterback and USC signer Malachi Nelson let out an “Uh oh!” when Cunningham tugged at his jersey as he emerged from the dressing room.
In the end, it wasn’t the dominant performance Cunningham himself advertised — failing to pick up a sack or register a big game — but it was a start.
“I was just a little kid from Georgia,” Cunningham told the Times after the game. “But I’m grateful for that [coaches]my teammates and just the whole community around me that supports me.
After a long back-and-forth, which went to court and culminated in an investigation to determine whether Cunningham had been drawn to Los Alamitos by “undue interference” with the program, the southern section of the CIF on Monday gave the lineman permission to admit to play.
Fenton texted him that same day to break the news, Cunningham said.
For real? Are you sure? Cunningham recalled writing back. So I can play? On Friday?
“I was just in disbelief,” Cunningham said.
Last month, his personal life was put on display when Cunningham was relegated to the duties of a hype man on the Los Alamitos bench. A complaint filed against the Southern Section claimed his family was going through hard times in Georgia, his father connected with a NIL agent who referred the family to Levels Sports Group, which arranged for Cunningham to come to California, to look for NIL opportunities.
Mitchell Schuster, an attorney for Levels co-founder Justin Giangrande, told The Times: “The picture they’re trying to paint [Cunningham] being lured into the state and then abandoned is just wrong, and it is utterly disingenuous.”
When asked for comment, Cunningham’s attorney, Mike Caspino, said text messages included in Giangrande’s former partner Chris Flores’ complaint, which appeared to promise housing for the Cunningham family, proved the truth of the story.
“The sharks are circling,” Fenton said. “They’re just trying, like everyone else, to take advantage of an opportunity to make money. And TA and his family fell victim to that.”
Asked about the situation in Cunningham and the decision at a council meeting on Thursday, Southern Section Commissioner Rob Wigod said the expansion of NIL prompted a reassessment of the body’s bylaws, particularly its policy on sporting transfers.
Fenton said it’s difficult for a 16-year-old to cope with the exam. His behavior in training after Monday was noticeably different, said the coach.
Visibly frustrated at times on Friday, Cunningham exchanged a few conversations with opposing linemen and umpires as he drew doubles teams at every game. He struggled with leg cramps in the second half, likely a symptom of still working in game form.
But overall, the junior maintained the same upbeat attitude, wrapping his arms around his teammates’ backs and pacing the sidelines.
When asked at the end of a post-game interview if he had anything to add, Cunningham paused for a moment and then said matter-of-factly:
https://www.latimes.com/sports/highschool/story/2022-10-01/ta-cunningham-plays-long-awaited-first-game-for-los-alamitos-high TA Cunningham plays long-awaited first game for Los Alamitos