Clemson, S.C.—Bennie Cunningham, arguably the great tight end in the history of the Atlantic Coast Conference, passed away Monday morning at the age of 63 (Dec. 23, 1954) at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio. Cunningham had been fighting cancer and was in the Cleveland Clinic since early January.
Cunningham played at Clemson from 1972-75 and was a two-time first-team All-American. He was the first African American football player to make an All-American team in school history. He was also the first African American to win the Frank Howard Award, a Clemson athletic department honor presented to an athlete each year for “bringing honor to Clemson.”
The native of Seneca, SC, was a consensus All-American choice as a junior in 1974 when he was named first-team by Associated Press, UPI, the American Football Coaches Association and The Sporting News. He was named first-team All-American by the Walter Camp Foundation and Sporting News in 1975.
A two-time first-team All-ACC selection, Cunningham was the only tight end named to the ACC 50-Year Anniversary team in 2003.
During his Clemson career, Cunningham caught 64 passes for 1044 yards and 10 touchdowns. His seven touchdown receptions in 1974 stood as a Clemson record for a tight end until 2011 when Dwight Allen had eight.
“Bennie Cunningham was one of our greatest players, arguably the greatest tight end in our history and ACC history,” said Clemson Head Coach Dabo Swinney. “He set the standard for players at that position. But, more importantly was the way he represented Clemson as a professional athlete and in his life after football. With his passing, the Clemson football program remembers him and his family with highest regard today.”
Cunningham was a first-round draft choice of the Pittsburgh Steelers in the spring of 1976. The 28th selection of the NFL draft that year, he remains the only tight end in Clemson history to be a first-round draft choice.
One of just seven former Tigers with at least two Super Bowl Championship rings, Cunningham was a member of the Steelers championship teams from the 1978 and 1979 seasons. In 2007 he was named to the Steelers all-time team in conjunction with the 75-year anniversary of the franchise.
Cunningham finished his NFL career with 202 receptions for 2,879 yards and 20 touchdowns. He played in 10 NFL playoff games with Steelers and had 19 receptions for 219 yards and two scores. His career spanned 10 seasons (1976-85) and he played 128 games, 118 in the regular season and 10 in the playoffs.
Cunningham returned to the Clemson area after his playing days and earned an undergraduate degree and a masters degree in secondary education. He had a long career as a guidance counselor at West Oak High School in Westminster, SC.