The Comeback Story of MTSU Quarterback, Chase Cunningham
By: Jackson Patterson
MTN Sports Reporter
It is no secret that the Middle Tennessee State University football team has had a roller coaster of a season. From beating a top 25 ranked team for the first time in program history in the University of Miami, to losing three conference games since then, emotions on the team have been all over the map. But the Blue Raiders have had an unexpected bright spot this season in their former walk-on, now starting quarterback, Chase Cunningham.
Last season, Cunningham started out by backing up the team’s opening day starting quarterback, Bailey Hockman for the first three games of their 2021 season. Due to a non-football decision, Hockman gave up football and the starting role was up for grabs. Cunningham was thrown into the fire and was named the team’s starting quarterback prior to their fourth game of the season. Cunningham took on this role very well and was thriving as the team’s starter.
“I try and keep myself always prepared,” Cunningham said. “Whether I was the starter or the fourth, fifth, or sixth string. I always try and prepare like I was the starting guy because I knew that whenever my moment would come, I would always be ready and try to make the most of the opportunity.”
Unfortunately, just four games after earning the number one spot on the depth chart, Cunningham abruptly saw his season come to an end and tore his ACL in his knee during a play ran in a mid-week practice. He recalls the exact play that was being ran when he first felt the injury.
“We had a little RPO (Run-Pass-Option) going on and I was rolling out to the right. I just put my foot in the ground like I’ve done hundreds of times and I obviously felt something that I had never felt before. I kind of heard the pop and felt the pop and obviously I knew something was wrong cause I tried to get up and I couldn’t really put any weight on my leg. It felt like it was just almost dangling, so I definitely knew something was wrong, but I was almost just in shock,” he said.
In any sport or any context, a torn ACL is a hard thing to stay positive about. Sometimes that kind of injury can be so severe that it ends careers. But in this situation, Cunningham showed his true character and never let the negativity of the situation get the best of him and was always striving for one goal, to get back on the field. He knew it would be a lengthy rehab process, seven to eight months to be exact, in order to achieve this goal, but he was ready for it and showed just how gutsy and purpose driven he truly was.
“I don’t think there were any doubts. I think Keith (the team’s athletic trainer) was great about the whole process especially keeping me up mentally with it. He was always just giving me little things and saying how confident he was in me and was giving me all of the little mental things to help me and push through the hard times,” said Cunningham. “Early on after surgery, they did a meniscus repair, and with the repair I couldn’t put any weight on that leg for four weeks after surgery. So, I was kind of going into the end of the third, going into the fourth week is when we were in The Bahamas for the bowl game. I was just going around the Bahamas in a wheelchair trying to make everything work. I was waking up early, even there in the Bahamas doing rehab and stuff. And then we had our little winter break, and I went home. Keith assigned me a PT (physical therapy) place in Knoxville, so I was going there three to four times a week just mainly doing some small stuff because that’s when I could finally start putting weight on my leg again. Then I came back in January and that’s when we kind of ramped things up in here. I can’t really remember my exact first time was going back to the weight room, but Keith would always tell me ‘that’s the most important thing is to get the strength back with heavy weightlifting.’ He put me through the ringer in the weight room and I needed it every single day, so we did that for a
couple weeks. And then we would get out to running. We started out with straight line jogging and then some change of speeds. As I kept getting stronger and the muscle was healing, we would start doing some change of direction. It was some small stuff at a slower speed and built it up as the weeks went on. And then by May I was in more of the being able to run in any direction which was really good for me because my goal was to get back by early summer just so I could do everything with the team again and be around the guys and go through everything with them. And then during summer we had our workouts, and I was able to do all of the conditioning stuff that the team was doing. Some of my workouts were a little bit different. Keith still wanted me to do the heavy legs with him mainly just to focus on my knee and getting it back with the muscle in certain areas, and then fall camp rolled around and I was good to go.”
After all of that adversity, all of that rehab, and all of the mental battles of trusting himself again, Cunningham was ready to go by the time the Blue Raiders opening game was upon him. Before that game, it was announced by their head coach, Rick Stockstill, that Cunningham was selected as one of the team captains. In any sport, this role is not taken lightly and has leadership expectations that come with it. Cunningham said this selection as an honor and something he embraces and described what it was like to step back on the field for the first time since his injury.
“I think being voted a team captain is the ultimate honor, and I don’t take any of that lightly. It was a long off season obviously with all the work I had to put in to get back. I can’t thank everyone enough for all the support and everything to help me get back. When we went out for that first game, I had repped everything so many times that I was confident. I didn’t have any doubts in my mind about where my knee was and that I could just play free,” he said.
Cunningham’s long and tedious rehab process has paid off in a huge way. He has taken his role as a leader and team captain and run with it. Through seven games so far this season, Cunningham has thrown for nearly 2,000 yards, a near 66% completion percentage, with ten touchdowns to only five interceptions thrown. Not to mention he has added three rushing touchdowns to his impressive 2022 resume. As mentioned, his gameplay this year has landed him as one of only 61 division one football players across the nation on the Comeback Player of the Year Award list. Being nominated for this award is no small matter, as one of the winners of it last season was Aiden Hutchinson, the second overall pick in this year’s NFL Draft. As his parting thoughts, Cunningham described what it means to him to be one of the few nominees for this award.
“It has almost been a year now, and that is crazy to think about. At first, I couldn’t even put pants on by myself and now I am back playing and feeling great out there on the field. I can’t thank Keith and his staff enough, my coaches, my teammates for just pushing me and helping me get back with everything. Again, it is the ultimate honor,” said Cunningham.
As Cunningham mentioned, the person who helped him through this hard time was the team’s athletic trainer, Keith Bunch. He is in his ninth year serving as the head football athletic trainer for the Blue Raiders. During his career, he has seen this type of injury happen dozens of times. He described that some of the players he has helped get back to playing have been tougher to work with thank others, but that Cunningham was one of his favorites to work with, saying he always kept a positive attitude and is a fantastic person to be around even through his rehab adversities.
“He is a top-of-the-line guy,” said Bunch. “He is a great character guy, and a hard worker. He leads by example, he’s calm and always in control. He’s really a phenomenal young man. You could tell there was days where he was struggling, like pain wise and discomfort and soreness. But he never gave into it. He never said, ‘I don’t think I’ll be able to do this again.’ He always had the mindset of, ‘Today sucks. I’m sore and not feeling my best but I’m going to come to work and put my hard hat on. I am getting it done.’ And that was his mindset. He fought through those days where he didn’t feel great. I never once heard him vocalize, ‘I don’t think I can do this’ or, ‘I don’t think I can make it back.’”
Bunch then described the moment that Cunningham went down when the injury occurred. He said that as a trainer, there are some initial right away tests that they run to get an idea of the severity of the injury. But as he was about to conduct these tests, he saw Cunningham’s true character shine through.
“Initially going out on the field, we weren’t quite sure what was going on because I didn’t see the exact moment he got hurt,” he said. “As we got out there to him, initially when someone says, ‘I hurt my knee,’ there are certain on field exams that we want to do, like hands-on exams. He refused those and he wanted to get off the field under his own power. He didn’t help and didn’t want any assistance. I kind of love that old school, gritty mentality of ‘as a man, I am going to take some pride in myself and get off this field,’ and I think that in that moment is a prime example of who Chase is. He is not an overwhelmingly big guy, but it speaks to the volume of character that he is, a hard-nosed, gritty guy with a lot of heart, and that is why everybody loves him. But we got to him and he said, ‘I heard a pop,’ and typically when you hear that you start thinking it’s the ACL. You do this for 20 years and you start to see a lot of similarities especially in a non-contact injury. He was in a lot of pain and discomfort, but he got off the field by himself. If you watch the film, we are walking by him and trying to offer him a hand and he kept saying ‘no.’ So we get him off the field, and right away it was pretty clear cut
when we got ahold of his leg and started doing the hands-on exam, it was obvious he tore his ACL.”
Bunch went on to describe the results of Cunningham’s MRI’s and went into deep details about how he helped him through each step of the way during the impending rehab process.
“Once we got the MRI, we saw that he tore his ACL. But in addition to that he had torn his lateral meniscus and his medial meniscus,” said Bunch. “Our doctors went in, and they had to repair his lateral meniscus, which is basically sewing the meniscus back together, and they also had to clean up the medial meniscus tear. There is no real good substitute for cartilage in your knee, it is not easily replaced. That right there put him on crutches for six weeks and did a lot of non-weightbearing exercises, like straight leg raises, hip bridges, and ankle pumps. It was a lot of stuff that involved him not putting weight on that leg. We also used something called blood flow restriction, which basically traps the blood in your leg and tricks your body into thinking it’s doing a much heavier workout. This helps to keep muscle tone and strength in your leg. People don’t realize how much muscle volume and muscle strength you lose in your leg when you’re not putting weight on it for six weeks. As much pain as he was in, he knew we had to do it. Once we got his range of motion back, we started doing the weightbearing activities and then just progressed from there.”
As the team’s athletic trainer, Bunch was essentially with Cunningham each step along the way of his comeback journey. A lot of the time, a bond will form between the player and the trainer. That is exactly what Bunch describes happened during this timeframe. He said he has never been prouder of Cunningham, and watching him play this season is extra special to him personally, especially knowing he helped him get back to the field and seeing him be nominated for Comeback Player of the Year.
“I think it’s a special moment anytime you can help your guys get back to doing what they love to do. That is why I do this and why I am in this profession. I see people get hurt, but when you get to see everything from the moment they are coming off the field under their own will power and then after the moment when they are back in practice and they are throwing and running and cutting, its special. For most athletic trainers, that’s why we do what we do. It has been great watching him play. I love the guy. He is such a hard worker. He is the epitome of I guess you could say an underdog. Physically he is not a huge guy, but he just has so much heart, and so much fight in him and so much toughness. Its awesome to be a part of that and watch someone get back to doing what they love to do.” said Bunch as his final thoughts.