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CUNNINGHAM

Kansas City Chiefs new coach Gunther Cunningham watches his team in the second quarter against the Chicago Bears on Sept. 12, 1999, in Chicago. The Bears spoiled Cunniungham's head coaching debut with a 20-17 victory.

For nearly five decades, he built fierce defenses that forced turnovers and limited scoring opportunities on Sunday afternoons.

And since 1969, he went on to produce future NFL players during his college coaching stops on the west coast and south, future NFL Hall of Famers throughout his NFL tenure and got to experience the NFL postseason numerous times.

But long before Gunther Cunningham carved his name in NFL lore as a sharp defensive mind who earned the respect of those who got coached up by his teachings, his football resume got built on 515 West College Avenue in Lompoc, then on 800 South College Drive in Santa Maria.

And the Lompoc High and Hancock College graduate, who died on Saturday at the age of 72 after a bout with cancer, leaves behind quite the legacy – a legacy that has lots of 805 roots.

Longtime coach, athletic director and now current Lompoc Unified School Board member Dick Barrett shared part of Cunningham’s legacy with me, saying Cunningham was a blunt, no nonsense disciplinarian…but was a nice person to the future high school coach of Napolean Kaufman.

A native of Munich, Cunningham made his mark as a standout linebacker for the Braves during the era of The Beatles, Aretha Franklin, The Rolling Stones, The Doors and Sam Cooke. He then put on the Hancock College colors and dominated on the Bulldog defense before Oregon made a dash at him.

It was the 805 where he got his first football start – before he went on an odyssey that took him to places like Canada, Los Angeles and Kansas City.

Long before the city of Lompoc became glued to Kaufman running circles around defenses in the Pac-10 and the NFL, Cunningham was part of the first group of Lompoc Valley residents who made it to the professional ranks. And he did it by using his mind to out-smart quarterbacks and offenses.

We should always remember how he used the late Derrick Thomas as his primary chess piece in disrupting the pass, especially during a time when Thomas played in a league when Lawrence Taylor was the face of linebackers. Or remember how those Chief teams had perennial pro bowlers Neil Smith, James Hasty and others during a time K.C was making a dash at the AFC West title.

He also got the chance to coach up a young Ndamakong Suh when the Nebraska standout and perennial pro bowl got his first taste of the league with the Detroit Lions. 

But we should also remember where “Gunny” got his early coaching start before giving offenses in the NFL fits: The Lompoc and Santa Maria Valley.

He's part of a list that includes Mike Sullivan, Ernie Zampese and of course, John Madden.                                                

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