O'HARA: Cunningham mixes business with business

Jerome Cunningham is chasing opportunities and pursuing dreams just as fast.

Cunningham has never been deterred by obstacles in a seven-year quest to carve out a career in the NFL as a tight end. He is competing to make the Detroit Lions’ roster with the odds typically against him.

Whatever success he’s had in achieving his goal on the playing field has come through hard work and perseverance, not idle dreaming.

“When things hit the wall,” Cunningham said at the end of the Lions’ offseason program, “I have a story I can share with the young players to push through that ceiling.”

Cunningham’s story includes a plan for his future. He has been accepted to Harvard’s online business program this offseason.

“I took the initiative to make sure I’m excelling physically and also mentally, and I want to learn how to own and operate a business,” Cunningham said. “It’s for working professionals, to see if their MBA program is a fit for them.”

View the best photos from 2019 Detroit Lions minicamp.

For Cunningham, who turned 28 last month, taking the Harvard course is a case of mixing business with business -- planning for an eventual career in the business world while taking care of business to have the best chance to win a roster spot.

In pure business terms, his balance sheet does not show much of a return on his time investment since he was a senior at Southern Connecticut State University in 2012.

He was undrafted in 2013 and did not get to an NFL training camp until the Giants signed him in 2014.

Cunningham has been on and off practice squads with four teams – Giants, Jets, Titans and Lions – more than two dozen times, according to profootballreference.com. Many of the moves were procedural during the season – signed one week, released the next, signed back a few days later – as part of the roster juggling all teams do.

He has made the 53-player active roster three times.

He made the Giants’ roster in 2014 but was not active for a game. He made it again in 2015, playing nine games with three starts. He had eight catches for 49 yards.

In his three games with the Lions last year he was targeted with one pass but did not have a catch.

The bottom line -- 12 games, three starts, eight catches for 49 yards – does not begin to tell what Cunningham has gone through to start a career and keep it alive.

After college he had jobs in his hometown of Waterbury, Conn., as a personal trainer and with a company setting up tents for events such as graduations and wedding receptions at homes in an affluent section of town.

“It was a great opportunity,” he said. “It kept me motivated, working 12 to 14 hours a day, then going to work out.

“If you want the finer things in life, you’re going to have to work for them. I was using that motivation from setting up these tents at all these beautiful homes. It was full-time work, maximum hours – 90 hours a week.”

He was on the job when he got the call from the Giants.

“I was just completing the job,” he said. “I got the call from my agent. He told me the Giants were going to call soon.”

And they did.

“I clocked out, showered, packed about five different outfits and drove straight to New Jersey,” he said.

He signed with the Giants in time for the last four weeks of training camp.

“I’d had some rookie minicamp tryouts, but nothing ever signing a contract until that moment,” Cunningham said. “Every team told me to stay in shape. I’m a hard-working guy.

“I told them, ‘I’ll be in shape. I’ll do anything you want me to.’”

Cunningham was finally on the inside of the NFL tent, not a spectator of the grand show. It wasn’t the start of a rags to stardom story, though.

Cunningham has fought a continuous battle to earn roster spots, and it hasn’t stopped with the Lions.

Cunningham is one of five tight ends on the roster, and with the recent release of Michael Roberts the only holdover at the position from 2018.

The other four were added in the offseason – veteran free agents Jesse James and Logan Thomas, first-round draft pick T.J. Hockenson and seventh-round pick Isaac Nauta.

“I just feel like I fit in wherever the team needs me,” he said. “That’s for everyone in the room. We all come with the mindset that we take it very seriously. We all take our reps very seriously. We’re all interchangeable.

“We want to make sure we’re a valuable and contributing piece.”

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