Los Alamitos High football coach Ray Fenton took him outside just before walk-through, preparing to deliver the news, and the emotion caught in his throat.
Before it all erupted, before T.A. Cunningham’s name became synonymous with the pitfalls of the name, image and likeness era, he was just a kid that wanted to play football. And there, on Aug. 28, was Fenton having to explain to the Georgia transfer — just before a game in Florida on ESPN — that his eligibility hadn’t cleared.
“Coach, don’t worry about it,” Fenton recalled Cunningham saying. “If it’s God’s will for me to not play in this game, then I have to yield to His will.”
Before just about every game this season, Los Alamitos assistant Bruce Bible said, Cunningham suited up, expecting to play. And every time, when the news came that his hardship waiver hadn’t been approved, he simply took to the sidelines, the 6-foot-6, 270-pound top-ranked junior defensive lineman becoming quite literally the biggest cheerleader on the field.
In Friday’s 61-21 win over Newport Harbor, though, Cunningham got his chance to line up with his teammates, thrusting his helmet into the air as he ran out with the Griffins pregame like Judd Nelson at the end of “The Breakfast Club.” Sidelines buzzed with hope, predicting he’d steamroll Sailors offensive linemen. Quarterback and USC commit Malachi Nelson let out an “Uh oh!” as Cunningham tugged on his jersey coming out of the locker room.
In the end, it wasn’t the dominant effort Cunningham himself had advertised — failing to record a sack or register a big play — but it was a start.
“I was just some lil’ kid from Georgia,” Cunningham told The Times postgame. “But I’m thankful for [coaches], my teammates, and just the whole community around, supporting me.”
After a long back-and-forth process that went to court and culminated with an investigation to determine whether Cunningham had been drawn to Los Alamitos via “undue influence” of the program, the CIF‘s Southern Section on Monday cleared the lineman to play.
Fenton texted him to break the news that same day, Cunningham said.
Really? Are you sure? Cunningham remembered texting back. So I can play? On Friday?
“I was just in disbelief,” Cunningham said.
In the last month, his personal life has been put on display as Cunningham’s been relegated to hype man duties on the Los Alamitos bench. A complaint filed against the Southern Section asserted his family had fallen on hard times in Georgia, his father connecting with an NIL agent that referred the family to Levels Sports Group, who arranged for Cunningham to come to California to seek NIL opportunities.
Mitchell Schuster, an attorney for Levels co-founder Justin Giangrande, told The Times that “the picture that they’re trying to paint that [Cunningham] was lured to the state and then abandoned is just false, and it’s completely disingenuous.”
When asked for comment, Cunningham’s lawyer Mike Caspino said text messages included in the complaint from Giangrande’s former partner Chris Flores, seemingly promising housing to the Cunningham family, proved the story to be true.
“The sharks are circling,” Fenton said. “They’re just trying to, like anybody does, capitalize on an opportunity to make money. And T.A. and his family fell victim to that.”
When asked about the Cunningham situation and decision at a council meeting Thursday, Southern Section Commissioner Rob Wigod said the expansion of NIL is prompting a reevaluation of the body’s bylaws, particularly guidelines on athletically motivated transfers.
It’s difficult for a 16-year-old kid, Fenton said, to handle the scrutiny. His demeanor in practice after Monday was noticeably different, the coach said.
Cunningham grew visibly frustrated at times Friday, exchanging some chatter with opposing linemen and referees as he drew double teams on every play. In the second half, he struggled with cramping in his leg, likely a symptom of still working into game shape.
But by and large, the junior kept the same upbeat attitude, slinging his arms around teammates’ backs and pacing the sideline.
When asked at the end of a postgame interview whether he had anything to add, Cunningham paused for a moment, then said matter-of-factly: