As he watched many of his teammates depart for a little summer sabbatical at the conclusion of the offseason program, undrafted rookie running back Benjamin Cunningham remained in St. Louis.
Armed with a fundamental understanding of how difficult it can be for undrafted rookies, particularly ones coming from smaller schools such as Middle Tennessee State, Cunningham knew that if he wanted to be ready to go when training camp begins this week, he’d need every possible moment to get up to speed as he recovered from a knee injury.
In other words, while teammates were setting off for exotic or even domestic vacations or simply returning home to spend time with family, Cunningham was going to be getting to know the Rams training staff.
“I didn’t feel like I had enough time to take a week off and I knew the guys around me weren’t taking a week off so I felt like I shouldn’t either,” Cunningham said.
Rams head athletic trainer Reggie Scott and his staff worked with Cunningham nearly every day, save for a week off for the Fourth of July holiday. But even then, upon heading back to Middle Tennessee, Cunningham refused to take a breather.
While others watched fireworks and set up their barbecues, Cunningham worked with Middle Tennessee’s head athletic trainer Robbie Stewart and strength coach Jason Spray. The goal was simple: be ready to go when rookies had to report for training camp on Sunday night.
Sure enough, when Cunningham arrived back in St. Louis, he was cleared to go and returned to the practice field with his rookie brethren on Monday and Tuesday afternoon.
“He stayed back and worked with Reggie and his staff the entire summer,” coach Jeff Fisher said. “He’s gotten that thing put behind him now so we didn’t have any reservations whatsoever or we would have put him on active PUP but he’s good to go.”
Cunningham originally suffered the torn patella tendon in the Blue Raiders’ sixth game of last season, a game that took place in October. At the time, Cunningham was leading the Sun Belt Conference in rushing with 600 yards and 11 touchdowns in five-plus games.
Since, Cunningham has spent as much time as possible working to get back into shape. The injury kept him from participating in the pre-draft process and he pinned his NFL hopes on getting an opportunity after the draft.
Sure enough, the Rams targeted and signed Cunningham. It didn’t hurt that Fisher was familiar with him from his time watching son Trent play against Cunningham on the Nashville prep scene.
Upon arrival in St. Louis, Cunningham found himself learning how to be patient as he watched practice from the sidelines.
“It’s been pretty hard not being able to participate,” Cunningham said. “I understand with my type of injury that I had to just be patient, build up every day and Reggie has talked to me every day and keeping me motivated.
“Some days it wouldn’t feel how I wanted and I would have to kind of sit back, sit out and watch things. Once I started the process, I began to understand how my body feels and how it reacts to the injury so I have been able to work through it.”
Cunningham said he made it a point to try to stay in his playbook as much as possible and remain engaged in every practice as though he was the one taking the handoffs. The idea of mental repetitions has become cliché for injured players but Cunningham said he would actually visualize himself taking handoffs and how he’d read the defense is he was on the field.
“I just try to do a good job of putting myself in their situations,” Cunningham said. “I do a lot of studying in the playbook and working extra in the film room so when I came out here and got in this situation, I wouldn’t be far behind. I just feel like I am right step for step with all of the other running backs.”
Running backs coach Ben Sirmans made sure to incorporate Cunningham into the mix as much as possible and quiz him to ensure that he was grasping the offensive concepts.
When Cunningham finally got the all clear on Sunday afternoon, he couldn’t help but be excited about the opportunity in front of him. In Monday and Tuesday’s rookie only practices, Cunningham worked with no brace and appeared to have no limitations in running or cutting.
With fresh legs at his disposal, Cunningham said he felt “excellent” and couldn’t wait to get back on the practice field with the veterans coming Thursday.
Cunningham wasted no opportunities to pick the brain of
That advice should come in handy for Cunningham, who has lofty goals for his first season in the league. While the first order of business is to make the roster, Cunningham views the Rams’ wide open running back competition as an opportunity to get on the field a lot in his first year.
“I feel like no matter what situation I was put into, I was going to come out here and try to compete as a starting running back,” Cunningham said. “Even if I don’t get the job, I feel like it’s up to me to compete, study my playbook and pretty much take care of my part to make the coaches’ decision a lot easier when it comes time.
“I’m looking forward to the competition.”