Originally written on Awful Announcing  |  Last updated 11/19/14

Football players and the Academy Awards aren't exactly foreign to each other these days, especially considering how The Blind Side earned a Best Picture nomination in 2009 (and saw Sandra Bullock take home the Oscar for Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role), but it's more unusual to see a real gridiron veteran recognized for work behind the scenes. That's the case with former Washington Huskies center and current ESPN/ABC analyst Ed Cunningham. Cunningham served as a producer on the high school football documentary Undefeated, which picked up the Oscar for best documentary Sunday night. It's just the latest accolade for Cunningham's documentary work (he's served as a producer on such documentaries as King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, New York Doll and Make Believe), and it's fitting considering that Undefeated saw him make a rare return to gridiron subjects. As Cunningham told Sam Farmer of the Los Angeles Times, he normally tries to avoid football in his documentary work, but this film was too attractive to pass up

“Because of my day job, I’ve kind of shied away from direct sports material as a producer,” said Cunningham, 42, an ESPN college football analyst who spent five seasons as a center for the Arizona Cardinals and Seattle Seahawks. “But I just kind of had a sense, along with my partners, that this would see beyond the field and really dive into the lives of these young men and the volunteer coach profiled in the film.

“It shows sports for what they should be about in the amateur level, which is learning how to be a better person through effort and failure, correction and criticism, and teamwork. I think that’s why we all aspire to be around sports so much. There’s so much more to it than just the on-field or on-court competition. And that’s what I’m so proud of with this film: You don’t have to be a fan of any sport, football or otherwise, to really engage with this story and the idea of people struggling and finding something in their lives positive and constructive to focus on.”

The film is a pretty impressive story, and perhaps fittingly given Cunningham's filmmaking interests, it goes well beyond football. On the surface, the documentary is the story of the rise of the Manassas Tigers football program in Memphis, but it's earning praise for much more than that. IFC's Stephen Saito wrote that "the film is a triumph not because Lindsay and Martin document the rise of a winning program, but because they’ve captured something far more winning about the goodness of people and a strength that isn’t limited to physical prowess," and The Seattle Times' Moira Macdonald wrote that the filmamkers saw it as "a story about fathers and sons, about opportunity and the lack of it, and about resilience and perseverance in a world that doesn't always unfold like a movie."

Cunningham's shown that he knows how to tell good stories that aren't tied into his football background, but Undefeated may have allowed him to synthesize the two areas of his life. If he carries on with that, sports fans everywhere may soon know his name as a top sports film producer, not just a guy who used to play football. 

[Seattle Times, Los Angeles Times]

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