By Mark Alewine | @MR_Alewine
Sports Capital Journalism Program
INDIANAPOLIS— Zach Cunningham was one of six kids from a town of just 7,132. As a four-star recruit,ranked in the ESPN 300, it was Vanderbilt that most pursued him over other southern power schools. And even after becoming a star in the SEC, Cunningham is still seen as an under-the-radar pick in the upcoming NFL Draft.
It’s fair to say Cunningham has spent a lifetime waiting an opportunity to show what he can do.
“Yeah, I’d say my talent as a player has been overlooked, but that’s not something that really bothers me or gets to me,” Cunningham said. “I just try to have fun and be the best I can be,” Cunningham said.
The Vanderbilt star came into the 2017 NFL scouting combine as potentially the first Commodore drafted since Jordan Matthews in 2014 and the first Vandy player taken in the first round since Chris Williams in 2008. Representing his often overlooked school and his small hometown on such a big stage is a source of pride for Cunningham.
“I definitely know I have a lot of responsibility with that,” Cunningham said. “With the way I present myself and how I do here. It’s not something I’m letting distract me, but that’s something I’m carrying on my shoulders in a prideful sense.”
Cunningham entered the 2016 season hyped as a potential breakout star after finishing the previous season with 88 tackles and 14 tackles for loss. But Cunningham blew away expectations with 125 tackles last season, including 19 at Georgia on October 15, vaulting himself from SEC stud to coveted NFL prospect. Emily Kaplan of MMQB has him going as high as pick 23 to the New York Giants.
A huge leap for the Pinson, Alabama native, named by Pro Football Focus as “the best linebacker you haven’t heard of” just nine months ago.
But for Cunningham, it’s all about the team. That’s something he learned as a young kid growing up the fifth of six kids in a neighborhood surrounded by family, and later playing guitar at his church, New Life Evangelistic Worship. Living in the spotlight wasn’t nearly as important as the success of the whole.
“I think it all gels together,” he said. “Being part of group. Being part of a big family. Being part of something that everyone’s really aimed at achieving, something that’s bigger than themselves for the group as a whole. That’s something that definitely relates to football.”
Football is a way of life in the Cunningham family. Brother Nathan was a standout at Lindsey Wilson College in Columbia, Kentucky, while his youngest brother Zapheth just finished his senior season at Pinson Valley High School in his older brother’s former position at middle linebacker. Family is a constant presence in Cunningham’s mind, and the driving motivation behind his drastic rise in the NFL minds.
“My motivation for me is my family,” Cunningham said. “They’ve always supported me and gathered around me and showed me love. Carried me throughout this process. They’ve always been there for me and that’s what drives me.”