TAMPA — With the Bucs preparing for Sunday's game at Philadelphia, rookie quarterback Jameis Winston on Wednesday shared that he grew up a huge fan of former Eagles quarterback Randall Cunningham.
"I just fell in love with him," said Winston, born in 1994, nine years into Cunningham's 16-year career. "I liked Randall Cunningham (because) what he brought to the game (was) excitement."
Winston said when he was a high school recruit, his rivals.com biography page compared him to Cunningham ("I was skinny back in those days") and "that made me even more of a fan."
As it turns out, Cunningham is a big fan of Winston's as well. Now 52, he's finishing his first season as coach at Silverado High School in Las Vegas. He took over a 3-7 team and is 7-3, coming off a win in the playoffs. He didn't know Winston was a fan of his growing up.
"I tell you what. I've watched him a lot and been a fan of his. That kid is relentless," Cunningham said by phone Thursday. "When people count him out, he steps up to the plate. I think he has the same thing I had: You tell him what he can't do, and he'll prove you wrong."
Winston, 21, knows enough about Cunningham to joke that he liked him for his punting skills. Cunningham doubled as an All-America punter at UNLV and once had a 91-yard punt in an NFL game. Cunningham said he is especially impressed by how quickly Winston has adjusted to the NFL. In 1985, Cunningham had just one touchdown and eight interceptions as a rookie with Philadelphia.
"I was terrible," said Cunningham, a scrambler who held the NFL record for rushing yards by a quarterback until Michael Vick passed him in 2011. "But my career turned around. When you see kids doing even average in their first year, kids like (Marcus) Mariota and Jameis, those kids are going to be great quarterbacks, the Marinos, the Elways, the Moons, those guys who end up taking football to a whole new level."
Cunningham said winning as a young quarterback isn't easy — he went 2-6-1 as a starter in his first two seasons — but said he has seen Winston do it, including Sunday, when Winston scored the go-ahead touchdown late in a 10-6 win over the Cowboys.
"His leadership qualities don't just come through a lot of talking. It comes through how he plays, those big plays that he makes, those moments when it's needed," Cunningham said. "In college, (Florida State would) be down, and he'd always figure out a way to win the game. That's what it takes to be a great quarterback in the NFL."
Cunningham is enjoying his retirement from playing. He also coaches track, where his daughter Vashti set a national high school record with a high jump of 6 feet, 4½ inches last spring. Vashti is a high school senior with scholarship offers in volleyball as well as track, and she is considering Oregon, Southern California, Georgia and UNLV.
Cunningham said it will be hard to pull for Winston on Sunday in Philadelphia: "He's going into hostile territory now. This will be a great opportunity to go play against a tough football team."