Inside the rise to prominence for Louisville football quarterback Micale Cunningham.
I sat down and had a one-on-one conversation with Michael Cunningham, father of Louisville football star quarterback Micale Cunningham, covering everything from the player’s childhood, his recruiting process, his resilience after injury, and where he stands now.
Cunningham led Louisville to a Music City Bowl victory last season, sparking hype from sports analysts and talking heads alike. But here lately, evidence suggests that all the talk could perhaps amount to more than just hype.
Micale was recently listed on the Davey O’Brien Award watchlist (given to most outstanding college quarterback), not to mention his Heisman Trophy odds dropped from 150-1 to 30-1.
Editors note: Throughout the article, you will read quotes from Michael that refer to Micale as “Malik“, which is the name he has gone by his entire life up until this past season. Just an FYI for your reading comfort level: both names refer to the same person.
A humble superstar: The story of Louisville football’s Micale Cunningham
After speaking with Michael at length, one thing I realized, like with many great athletes, Micale Cunningham’s story of success took shape long ago. There are layers to this one.
Micale grew up in a family chocked-full of athletic talent. His siblings and extended family all play or played sports at a high level.
His sister, Kelia, plays point guard for West Virginia State basketball, and one of his cousins he competed against growing up was none other than Louisville basketball legend Asia Durr.
“It used to be fun watching her and him go at it in basketball,” Cunningham said.
What a revelation this was.
“Asia was always jumping higher, and (Micale) used to be amazed by her. They’re the most humble kids you ever wanna meet,” he said.
Micale was constantly being put to the test. He was always battling the greatest that every league or team had to offer.
“His little league football and basketball games through middle school and high school, playing against the top talent in the state of Alabama was always intense,” Cunningham said.
Even at a young age, it was apparent Micale always had a motor on him, and he always had a nose for the end zone.
“He once scored a touchdown in all phases of the game in little league,” Cunningham said.
This type of proficiency, however, was not acquired overnight.
“All of my sons played at the same park, so Malik and his older brother Myke would go 3 times head-up after practice to see who would win. Needless to say, Myke always dominated,” he said.
Then suddenly, a turning of the tables occurred.
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“Malik’s last year at the park, the first time went as normal. Myke ran him over. Second time, Malik got up and ran and Myke couldn’t make the tackle. I was like ‘WHOA’,” Cunningham said. “The last time, Malik got up to run and he dropped a shoulder on his brother…like damn near ran him over,” he said.
Prior to this moment, Micale was always playing catch-up with the elder sibling.
“I was beyond shocked. Myke was one of the hardest hitters at the park. I felt like the big brother was handing over the torch to the little brother,” Cunningham said.
Micale excelled at football and basketball for his entire amateur career, ultimately turning heads in the college football world. He was rated a 4-star prospect by rivals.com.
“LSU was our first choice. And Georgia. He had about 29-30 offers. All at QB,” Cunningham said.
You could say things went into overdrive fairly quickly.
”Funny story. We were at Georgia after Kirby (Smart) arrived, and recruiters at most schools always made it to where Malik was either the only QB on campus when we came or he would be the biggest recruit there,” Cunningham said.
Micale was getting the red carpet rolled out for him.
“Most places did that, except for Bama, but at that point (Jake) Fromm was committed to Bama and no one had heard from Tua (Tagovailoa). Somehow that same day by the time we got home, Fromm had de-committed from Bama and committed to Georgia and Tua was in Tuscaloosa,” he explained.
What a wild day of integral moving parts in college football.
“Bama, at the time, was the only school to offer him on defense,” Cunningham said.
Come to find out, not only could Micale sling the rock, but he also was a next-level safety.
“Malik was an animal on defense. Y’all think he is amazing at QB, but y’all haven’t seen him play defense. At safety, he can cover the whole field, and he will knock the hell out of you. You couldn’t throw on him at all,” Cunningham said.
A miniature movie played in my head when he said this, and my face crinkled into a devilish grin.
“They compared him to an (NFL) safety. (Micale) came to Bama as a 4-star QB. I know (Coach) Nick (Saban) is about that defense, but Malik has a cannon on his right shoulder and that was that,” Cunningham said.
The Cunninghams were not fazed by the Alabama coach’s legend and/or prestige.
“Nick or not, my boy is a QB. (Saban) told us face to face that Malik wasn’t his type of QB. But hey, it all worked out best for us and Tua,” he said.
Rumors began to surface about Micale’s abilities outside of the quarterback position.
”Georgia took the QB offer back and re-offered him as an Athlete,” he said.
As word spread, other big-name schools began to follow suit.
“Auburn and Florida came on really strong at the end too. But Auburn, at the time, had too much going on that wasn’t football-related, and (Coach) Gus (Malzahn) was slow with the process,” Cunningham said.
Raising a family born and bred to love Alabama Crimson Tide football, Michael could see that his blossoming quarterback somewhat marched to the beat of a different drum.
“We all grew up Bama fans, but Micale was always different. He liked Florida and Florida’s offense,” Cunningham said. “Micale is his own person,” he explained.
One thing that was true here that’s common throughout the recruiting world is that friendships certainly mean something when choosing a college.
“A lot of guys he grew up with, I coached, and coached against, had signed in the SEC,” Cunningham said.
In the midst of his son’s wild recruiting process, Michael recalls their first venture on a recruiting visit to Louisville.
“Our impression of the city was wonderful. We didn’t know much about Louisville at first. But as we kept exploring and talking to people, we found out (Muhammad) Ali was from there,” Cunningham said.
Being from an area like Montgomery, AL, they fit right in.
“(Louisville) reminded me of home…a little country, but just enough city. Museum row was cool. The Louisville Slugger place…we didn’t know about any of that, so learning and exploring with him was a good experience,” Cunningham said.
After some time sightseeing, it was time to get down to business.
“Coach P. (Bobby Petrino) asked me when we committed if I had any questions because he doesn’t discuss playing time. I said ‘Does Malik get a helmet?’ He looked at me like ‘huh?’; I said ‘as long as he gets a helmet, we have no more questions,’” Cunningham said.
Say what you want about the last coaching regime, but they never gave up on Micale.
“Louisville stayed loyal. A lot of people don’t know it, but Micale had a broken leg his senior year (of high school) playing basketball, and Louisville showed up at the Mr. Football banquet saying they were still committed to us,” Cunningham said.
“Me knowing how the business works, that was very big. But I was very upset with him,” he joked.
The Roll Tide vibes are strong with Michael.
“But truthfully, it was all Malik‘s decision. I liked Bama but Bama wanted him to tackle and not give him a chance at QB. So, therefore, it was all about my son. Me and his mom collectively felt Louisville was good for him. And, Asia was already a star at Louisville. Her father, my cousin, had always talked really good about the school,” Cunningham said.
That’s quite a pipeline to Louisville. But having that level of referral came with responsibility. Micale would have to follow in the footsteps of two current starting NFL quarterbacks.
“I really think his game is very different from Lamar (Jackson) and Teddy (Bridgewater). I taught Micale to always throw first. I used to say ‘everybody knows you can run. They wanna see that right arm.’ He takes pride in his craft,” he said.
I asked Michael what it means to Micale to fill those shoes here at Louisville.
“Being a QB and being a black QB; it’s very important to him. Coming to Louisville after watching Teddy and Lamar have success here,” he explained.
“I started to see a change in Micale before the injury, but after the injury, the more he played, the better he played. As a QB, you gotta have a rhythm. He could never get a rhythm at first, and the coaches play-called to his strengths. That was key. This is a great coaching staff (Coach Satterfield’s),” he said.
We talked a little bit about his resilience as an individual through the injuries and the setbacks.
”He stayed strong and showed great character. But this past summer right before the first practice, even while hurt, he said ‘Dad, this my team’. When you get all the first-team reps, and you’re not worried about being taken out for a mistake, you can get a rhythm as a QB, and that is what you want,” he said.
Spoken like a true leader, and believe me, Micale had plenty to stress over.
”That knee was on his mind a lot. Me nor anyone else knew what that was like for him, so I never pushed. No one did. But Malik is a gamer. Always has been. He will rise like the Phoenix,” Cunningham said.
Michael agrees with what most of us believe: Coach Satterfield’s staff has been a godsend.
“I love the new staff. Best thing that ever happened to Louisville,” he said.
It’s easy to tell the relationship between Micale and the staff has been compatible so far.
“The play-calling of this coaching staff is perfect for him. They was a match made in heaven,” Cunningham said. “Malik is a very personal kid. If he knows you believe in him, he will not let you down. This coaching staff believes in my son. And he in return trusts and believes in them,” he said.
With his starting position all but solidified and two years of eligibility left, the elder Cunningham believes his progress should be a sight to behold.
“Micale has been given the reigns to continue the success of the program. But, he’s no stranger to the spotlight,.”