According to the Football-Database, Cunningham started only one game in his career and apparently remained on the sideline until 1980, the last year of his career. Does this mean that the only game he started in his entire career was his first as a pro - that warm, dusty, error-laden game - the beginning of two frustrating Jets seasons to come? I remember the feeling I had during the first game I started at wide receiver in peewee flag football, when I was nine, a year before Eric Cunningham began his pro career. It was my only football season as a player. It was hilarious and terrifying fun. To a little boy who had watched football with a sense of fascination on his parents' Sony Trinitron, it was impossible to figure out how it really worked on the ground. I was like a fish in a blender, just waiting for the spinning to stop.
By the third game of the season, the coach - a tall, borderline personality case - sent my friend Pete out to run a pattern that was made for the wide receiver. Probably one of the four patterns I was supposed to run - the down-and-out, the down-and-in, the post, and the buttonhook. After losing consecutive games, maybe coach was just trying something new. Pete ran out, turned around, and our quarterback had the ball exactly where the pudgy-faced little kid needed it, and Pete headed for the sideline, which he ran along for the touchdown. It was the end of my career at wide receiver. The game had slowed down for Pete enough that he made the play that I couldn't and probably wouldn't have made.
I'd lie if I said I wasn't hurt by it, but it was the first of many valuable lessons in how sports can sometimes mirror a world where sentimentality and affection mean little to nothing. Life is a casting off of things, as Mrs. Loman says. We are here, then we're not, and someone is there to take out place - maybe even someone as nice and friendly as little Pete was in real life. Did Eric Cunningham watch his chances leave him that sandy afternoon, not quite even knowing what was awaiting him the following week? Did it end just after it began? Was he badly injured? What happened? The air is full of our cries to know.
Charles "Tank" Marshall #68 was drafted in the third round in 1977, two years before Cunningham. But Marshall came with greater expectations and hopes, especially for a team that had never adequately replaced its defensive line with anything resembling what they had in the late 60's and early 70's. Out of Texas A&M, Marshall played only a few games for the Jets and then his NFL career ended. I have the vaguest of memories seeing him in the 1977 yearbook as a valued lineman to be, with a future ahead of him.
What the future held for him is unclear, but as a former standout college player, he was at least alive and well enough to give an interview at the TexAgs site where I learned that his nickname has two possible origins. At almost six feet in the sixth grade, he broke a teammate's helmet in practice with his forearm, compelling someone to remark that he hit like a tank. His brother also referred to him as "Tankhead" when he was little because of the size of his skull.
At the link above, there is an audio of a radio interview done with Marshall who sounds very well. Apparently he has been a presence at many Aggie training camps over the years, and unlike the way I often picture old men whose best football memories seem to be from college, Marshall today seems to see his experiences in the past as a gift that keeps on giving to generations of other players. As a self-described elitist Northerner, I'm so compelled to love the professional game but to disparage the Southern collegiate one that feeds the pros. But though Tank Marshall still resides in the past, he's very much in the present too. Much like South itself.
Though he does note that as an African-American player from Dallas, he was only taken aback when he first arrived at A&M by the strange custom of his classmates chewing Copenhagen and leaving cups of spit behind in the classrooms after lectures.