ARGYLE, Texas — The first time J.R. Cunningham fell, back in June 2011, he didn’t even want to go to the hospital. Cunningham was young and healthy and vibrant.
He didn’t know his brain was damaged. Didn’t know why his world-class memory had been slipping some over the years. Didn’t know his life was about to change.
Now Cunningham walks with a cane and talks with a stutter. When he’s walking and talking. Cunningham currently is in the Intensive Care Unit of Denton Regional Medical Center, just off a ventilator, recovering from cardiac arrest, and yet another blood clot, and more pulmonary embolism, which blocks his lungs.
Cunningham’s doctor tells him he suffers from post-concussion syndrome.
Cunningham has lost his job. He’s lost his home. Cunningham’s wife, Angela, takes care of him, even to the point of helping him up and down from a chair. He hasn’t driven in two years.
Most days are Groundhog Day; he lies down for hours on end, trying to evade the headaches that haven’t left him since that first time he fell, getting out only for medical trips and when he can summon the strength to make one of his kids’ ballgames or dance recitals.
J.R. Cunningham is 38 years old.
And in July, Cunningham filed a lawsuit against the NCAA in Dallas’ federal court, alleging neglect in the treatment of concussions. Cunningham attended both Arizona State and the University of Tulsa. But he didn’t play football. Basketball was his game.
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J.R. Cunningham lived 21/2 blocks from Edmond Memorial High School. So even as a little kid — who was big for his age — he would wander down to the Bulldog practice.
“He used to come up after school and shoot free throws with my high school team when he was a little guy,” said Mike de la Garza, who spent 22 years as the Memorial coach. “He was really tall and real verbal and would talk to people. He always had a very vibrant personality. I had him in basketball camp for years and years and years.”
Cunningham was camper of the week in his final summer to attend de la Garza’s camp. Cunningham made two foul shots with one second left to win the camp’s title game. De la Garza handed Cunningham the award and said, “You’re going to make a one-and-one for us one day, and we’re going to win a state championship.”
In March 1993, de la Garza was proven prophet. In the Class 5A state championship game in Tulsa, the 6-foot-7 Cunningham had 32 points and 10 rebounds and sank two foul shots with four seconds left to give Edmond Memorial a 68-67 victory over Bartlesville. A star was born.
“He was so good, especially his senior year, he had to battle just to get the ball,” de la Garza said. “Every defense was set up just to stop him. He was a tough, tough kid. Played hard. Never backed down from anybody.”
Cunningham eventually signed with Arizona State, didn’t like it much, transferred back to St. Gregory’s when the Shawnee school was a junior college and finally Cunningham arrived at Tulsa U. in 1996. He had nine points off the bench in TU’s 78-75 victory over OU in the 1996 All-College championship game. The next season, Bill Self became the Tulsa coach, for Cunningham’s senior season.
“J.R. was a tough kid,” Self said. “He didn’t have the greatest natural athletic ability. He had to fight and scratch and claw for everything. He was one of those guys that had to play a physical style in order to get a lot done.”
But Cunningham’s aggression came at a cost. He suffered multiple concussions at both Arizona State and St. Gregory’s. They weren’t necessarily diagnosed as such back then, because not even the NFL was on the lookout for concussions. But Cunningham is convinced that’s what they were.
“Most of ‘em were either elbows to the head or going for loose ball or hitting your head on the floor,” Cunningham said. “As they’ve come to realize, once you have a few of them, it becomes easy to get more. Not really having any protocol or anything like that for the doctors or coaches to follow, they might say, ‘OK, the next day you’re fine to go, when my brain definitely wasn’t able to go.’”
Cunningham suffered more concussions at Tulsa. Cunningham missed the first part of his senior season but said Self was anxious to speed up the recovery process. “Suddenly, I was cleared to play,” Cunningham said. “I wanted to play. They needed me to be good.”
Cunningham played in TU’s rout of Nebraska on Dec. 1, 1997, then in practice the next day, his career ended.
“We were doing a pick drill, and I got somehow got flipped around,” said Cunningham, whose short-term memory is shaky but whose memory of long-ago events remains strong. “Our best player was Michael Ruffin; he weighed about 270. My head hit into his knee, and I just kind of plopped to the ground.”
Cunningham knew this one was bad. It took awhile for him to even get up. He estimates he was mentally out of it for six hours. Cunningham went to see Dr. James Rodgers, a neurosurgeon whose son played on the TU team. Rodgers performed the first MRI on Cunningham, but it revealed nothing.
Cunningham told Rodgers what had been happening. How the concussions were coming more frequently, without necessarily heavy contact. Cunningham asked the doctor if he would let his son play with a similar history. Rodgers said no.
“That kind of helped me come to a decision,” Cunningham said. He would play basketball no more. His head hurt. He didn’t finish his schoolwork until July. “I just had no cognitive ability,” Cunningham said.
But the headaches went away, and Cunningham went on about the business of life.
Self, now at Kansas and one of the nation’s top coaches, is crestfallen at what’s happened to his former player.
“This is terrible to say, but I don’t know that we as basketball coaches concerned ourselves close to the level that we are now,” Self said of concussion awareness. “Although we don’t have our arms around it, we’ve got a much better understanding of it. Obviously, today things would be handled so differently.
“This was a thriving, tough-ass, 6-7, 230-pound strong man. To see what he’s going through now…”
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Angela and J.R. met on a blind date, at a George Strait concert. She was a teacher in Lewisville, he a pharmaceutical rep working in Oklahoma City. They hit it off, he asked to be transferred to the Dallas area in 2000 and they were married in 2002. Soon enough, children Braedyn (now 10), Rylan (8) and Ashlynn (6) followed.
Life was good. Cunningham was successful and healthy. He worked out, even played some basketball, trimmed down from his playing weight of 225. But Angela didn’t know that her husband still didn’t feel right, even though he told her from the start about the depression medication Dr. Rodgers had put him on.
“It did get better,” Cunningham said from that last Tulsa concussion. “I got over it and had some cognitive ability, but I wouldn’t say my brain has been right since then. I would notice things, even with memory, I could see where it was slipping a little bit.”
And then Cunningham fell and passed out at a business meeting in June 2011. He felt sheepish. Tried to wave off the ambulance. But by that night, Cunningham learned he had a blood clot in his leg and two clogged lungs. “I was very lucky to be alive,” he said.
Cunningham went back to work a few months later but the headaches persisted and he kept falling. Doctors have told him that when the pain reaches a certain level, down he goes. Cunningham has a pump attached to his body for pain medication that helps some. He figures he’s fallen 30 times in the last three years, including once down the stairs, which injured his back and compounded his health problems.
Cunningham went on long-term disability, which he’s grateful for but which has severely cut his family’s income. The Cunninghams lost their home and now rent a house in this nice suburb south of Denton.
“It’s been tough,” said Angela Cunningham. “It’s affected the kids. He can’t do the stuff with the kids he wants to do. It’s been difficult. It was like overnight, everybody takes on different roles in the house.”
Cunningham has been to the Cleveland Clinic and Johns Hopkins, seeking relief. Not much hope is offered. Cunningham has tried to join concussion study projects at Boston University, Vanderbilt and the University of Texas-Dallas. He says he’s been rejected because he wasn’t a football player.
In March, the Cunninghams saw a commercial for Houston attorney Jeff Raizner, who has clients suffering from concussion-related conditions.
Raizner said there are some class-action lawsuits pending that address medical monitoring for former athletes suffering from post-concussion syndrome, but those cases “won’t address the obvious financial and family impacts, the personal injuries that J.R. and other men and women have experienced. It really is inadequate.”
Raizer said there are important distinctions between NFL players and college athletes. “NFL players have workers compensation and union representation,” Raizner said. “College athletes don’t have either one of those. That places a greater responsibility with the NCAA to be candid with these athletes. There is no safety net.”
Cunningham said suing the NCAA, instead of individual schools, is proper “because I don’t think the NCAA did a great job of teaching the coaches and the trainers. The doctors don’t really come into effect in basketball practice. There’s not that knowledge out there to protect the player as I think there should have been.”
Cunningham tried to keep his problems to himself. Self and de la Garza didn’t even know how badly Cunningham was until contacted in the last few days. Self immediately called Cunningham and de la Garza planned to head for Texas to visit.
“I honestly tried to keep it to myself for awhile,” Cunningham said. “I don’t want to use the word embarrassing, but when you’re going through financial issues and not able to work, it’s pretty hard on you mentally.”
A couple of weeks ago, Cunningham sat in his house and told his story. Glimpses of his old personality shone through, despite the stuttering that has afflicted him. He remains a big sports fan — OU football, Thunder — and is proud that he played for men like Self and de la Garza.
But the blood keeps clotting, and his head keeps hurting, and his memory comes and goes. And now his condition has even worsened.
“I’m very much a worrier to start with,” Cunningham said. “My physical condition is a worry. I certainly worry for myself. But I worry more about what it’s doing to my kids and my wife. Because they don’t deserve this. They didn’t sign up for this.”
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at email@example.com. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at newsok.com/berrytramel.