Benny Cunningham doesn’t mind waiting. He believes he possesses a high level of tolerance in most situations.
But this was beginning to try his patience and test his confidence.
After biding his time as a backup to Phillip Tanner, Cunningham entered the 2011 season as Middle Tennessee State’s starting running back. In the fourth game of his junior season — on the heels of a promising 117-yard performance against Troy — he fractured his foot. The former Goodpasture standout missed the next four games and struggled to gain that same momentum in the last third of a lost season for the 2-10 Blue Raiders.
This year, the senior couldn’t make it one quarter before the injury bug attacked. In the season opener against McNeese State he separated his shoulder. The next week he again found himself on the sidelines cheering on his teammates.
He went his entire high school career and his first two college seasons injury-free and, now, after being named starter, health issues were preventing him from making a difference.
“It’s pretty frustrating missing games,” Cunningham said. “Being a senior you want to play every single game, never knowing which one is going to be your last. ... I don’t feel cursed. It’s just how I’m built, I guess. Just a little bad luck.”
Then came last Saturday.
In his second game since the shoulder injury, he showed the Blue Raider faithful — and a stunned Georgia Tech crowd — he was back. He shredded the Yellow Jackets for 217 yards on 27 carries and scored five times, including a 60-yard dash to open the second quarter. In one game, he tripled his rushing total for the season and climbed to third in the Sun Belt in yards per game (102.7) and first with seven rushing touchdowns.
The performance earned him the AT&T All-America National Player of the Week award Thursday. Four players are chosen finalists each week by ESPN analysts and fans vote for the winner.
“I didn’t know what was in store,” Cunningham said. “I felt like we had a good week of practice. The O-line really took control of the game, creating holes for me and really made the game easy for me.”
He enters Saturday’s homecoming game (2:30 p.m., Sun Belt Network) against visiting Louisiana-Monroe with 308 yards on 47 carries for a 6.6 average — the best in the league.
“Coming off an injury you kind of doubt yourself a little bit,” Cunningham said. “But that game pretty much gave me the confidence for this week to let me know I can still do it.”
Rick Stockstill never lost the faith.
MTSU’s veteran coach believed Cunningham still had that game-changing ability in him. This was the same player that Stockstill used on practically every special teams play his first two years. The same 5-foot-10, 212-pounder that Stockstill believed he could plug in at cornerback and linebacker if needed.
He saw an undeterred athlete whose work ethic never wavered. In what Stockstill calls a “microwave world,” Cunningham stayed patient — even if he was getting antsy on the inside — and stayed the course.
“We want instant gratification. In athletics, it doesn’t happen that way,” Stockstill said. “There is a time process that you have to go through, a developmental process. But Benny is one of the hardest workers I have ever been around. ... Just because you work hard doesn’t mean you’ll have success. But if you don’t work hard, you have no chance to have success. Benny is committed.”