‘Dual and spectacular’: Great Falls football player trades football for horn at halftime
While some Great Falls players splayed out in the end zone after their five-overtime win over Ware Shoals on Sept. 21, 2018, trying to catch their breath or just basking in a well-earned victory, junior lineman Anthony Cunningham Jr. headed toward the hill and the Red Devils’ locker room.
But, first, a reporter stopped him to ask some questions. That’s been happening somewhat frequently in the last few weeks. More on that in a minute.
Asked how he felt after the marathon game, Cunningham was succinct.
“Real tired,” he said. “Want to go home.”
At 6-foot-4, 295 pounds, Cunningham Jr., usually stands out. That’s especially true when he’s playing the baritone horn at halftime of Great Falls home football games, still dressed in his pads and No. 56 jersey.
“He doesn’t get a warm-up, he just comes over and blows some notes,” said Great Falls marching band director Joe Miller. “He’ll keep his shoulder pads on and march in his football pads. I expect him to come out and do his best and concentrate on what we’re doing. I think of him as a musician that also plays football. And of course, coach (Scotty Steen) thinks of him as a football player who also is in the band. But we get along well.”
Getting along well is critical for coaches and teachers at Great Falls, which has 370 students total in grades 6-12. The small student body means the school’s sports teams and extracurricular programs need any interested students to participate, and not just in one pursuit.
“The whole school does whatever it takes to make the whole system work,” Steen said. “If we didn’t share kids, if the cheerleaders didn’t share kids with the band, then the programs wouldn’t be successful.”
But that creates a stimulating high school experience, different from bigger schools where specializing in one sport or after-school activity is increasingly the norm. Miller’s marching band includes cross country runners, cheerleaders and participants in many other extracurricular activities. Of the 370 middle and high school students at Great Falls, about 120 are in Miller’s music program.
Sure, the Great Falls kids are helping out the school’s various athletic, musical and academic programs by participating in multiple activities.
Miller, whose family moved from Irmo and whose daughter, Alexis, previously attended Dutch Fork High School, added that many of these kids wouldn’t get an opportunity to participate in such a variety of after-school pursuits at a bigger school. They might not be good enough at a school that was spoiled with thousands of students. Miller’s daughter runs cross country, cheer-leads and has been involved in student government. Alexis’ co-drum major also runs cross country and is on student council. They’re not outliers at Great Falls.
Cunningham Jr., who everyone calls by the nickname “June,” first played in the marching band in eighth grade. He started out playing bass drum, but switched to the baritone, which musically sits between a tuba and a trumpet.
“He’s come a long way,” said Miller. “He’s very enthusiastic about it. We struggled with getting him to read notes, instead of he just wanted to know what the fingers were. But he’s starting to read music now, which is really good.”
He’s also progressed on the football field. Football coach Scotty Steen remembers that Cunningham Jr., “was toast” after 15 minutes of his first practice. But the team’s biggest player has come a long way since, improving his fitness and playing on both the offensive and defensive lines, while rarely getting a break.
“He’s got a determination and if he gets mad... look out,” said Steen.
Three or four days a week, Cunningham Jr., practices with the football team for about an hour, then joins up with the marching band for the next hour. He’s been a little surprised by the attention his dual participation has received, including, in addition to this story, a video made by the Chester News and Reporter and a segment on Charlotte TV station WSOC.
“Everybody comes up to me talking about, ‘oh, you’re on the news!’ ‘They wrote an article about you!’ and I ain’t get to see none of it,” Cunningham said, shaking his head.
But the reason Cunningham Jr., is interesting is partly because he stands out so much during the halftime band performances, and partly because his dual participation is so rare these days outside of the country’s smallest high schools. Instead of focusing solely on the pursuit of a football or music scholarship, Cunningham Jr., is involved in two things he loves.
“I don’t have a favorite,” he said. “I love both of them equally. I couldn’t pick.”
That’s why at halftime of the Great Falls-Ware Shoals five-overtime marathon, Cunningham Jr., was out there in his all-black football uniform, pads and all, stepping around the field in concert with -- and towering over -- his band mates, while the football team strategized and replenished fluids away from the action.
Cunningham Jr., had as much fun playing the fourth song of the marching band’s halftime performance, “This Is Me,” from The Greatest Showman movie, as he did trying to pancake-block Ware Shoals’ defensive linemen.
The halftime performance ended and the game stretched on into the September night, everyone in the Pride Valley stadium growing restless for a conclusion as each team continually scored in overtime, but failed on the ensuing two-point conversions. Great Falls’ defense finally got the fourth down stop it needed to win around 11 p.m., and players dumped Gatorade -- what was left -- on Steen’s head. Cunningham Jr., may have been more tired than anyone.
“I was like, ‘please don’t catch the ball,’” he said laughing. “But we finally won, and I’m just... relieved.”
And with that, June Cunningham Jr., began his final act of a long Friday night, trudging up the hill to the locker room.
The baritone horn was sitting on the trainer’s table near midfield, a good 70 yards from where he stood. Cunningham Jr., slumped.
“Somebody come and get that for me,” he shouted.
The long night wasn’t quite over.