March 6, 2014 1:11:10 AM
STARKVILLE -- Years later Tyson Cunningham won't likely be remembered by anything he's done on basketball floor because his value to Mississippi State has been much more important.
Cunningham, the Columbus native, is known more already as the walk-on who used to practice against the MSU women's team. Or he's the basketball player that can brilliantly sign the National Anthem. Or to his teammates, Cunningham is the only married member of the playing roster. All of these destinations have been part of his journey and led to his leadership qualities on this MSU team.
"He's like a father to all of us out there because he's been through it and pretty much does everything right in his life," MSU senior forward Colin Borchert said. "He tells us what to do and how to act when we need it. I'll remember that most about Tyson."
The fact remains Cunningham can't be pigeon holed into a specific character analogy. Ironically, this multifaceted talent base is his value to the team in a basketball sense as well.
"Just having the support and the love in the background that you know is there is important because basketball is just a small part of the whole thing we go through," Cunningham said. "For me, it makes it easy to have a wife and family that is constantly supporting me in life to be a better man."
Not that he needs one but Cunningham's head coach has already given his player one of the best verbal job recommendations in front of local media last year.
"If anybody wants to know who to hire on our team, hire Tyson Cunningham," MSU coach Rick Ray said in February 2013. "I don't care what the job is or what sort of field it is in."
Cunningham, who plans to work in the music business after graduation, was given the opportunity to be in the drum line of the MSU marching band as a freshman because as he put it "they gave me the biggest drum probably because I was the only one that could carry it who tried out."
A former starter at Columbus High School wasn't recruited by a single college coach in his prep career despite averaging 11.2 points and 6.0 rebounds per game as a senior. He turned down a full basketball and band scholarship to Stillman College, a historically black liberal arts college that is Division II in athletics, after going through a open tryout.
"My sisters went there and they wanted me to try out and so I went for their sakes," Cunningham said. "It was a little far from home and my responsibilities to my church. At the time my girlfriend was (at MSU) and she's my wife now so I came to MSU on a drumline scholarship."
Ray probably said it best in his first season at MSU when described Cunningham stating "you don't have to be a scholarship player with all the hype to be a leader."
Cunningham's journey already explains why his teammates look to him for guidance. A little after a year after getting former MSU coach Rick Stansbury to agree to let him walk on as a non-scholarship player, he was getting his first start at the Maui Invitational in November.
"A lot of people don't know this story but I had a dream that I made the team before I actually got to talk to Coach (Rick) Stansbury," Cunningham said.
In the 2014 season, Cunningham has been coming off the bench for a once again depleted Bulldogs team but has contributed in several games averaging eight minutes per contest. Cunningham was part of the best stretch Mississippi State had in a blowout loss to Georgia at Humphrey Coliseum on Feb. 12. The 6-foot-3 guard nailed a three-pointer in the corner while being fouled to give MSU a 17-8 lead with 11 minutes and 22 seconds left in the first half. Last season, MSU had him playing 20 minutes per game for the Bulldogs that finished 10-22.
The cult following for Cunningham has arguably more to do with his voice than his basketball skills. Before the tip of the 2012 National Invitational Tournament first round loss to Massachusetts, Cunningham received a standing ovation for singing the anthem at center court - with his MSU warmup gear on. During road trips, Cunningham can naturally be seen in the lobby of the hotel if they have a piano entertaining a crowd with his musical talents. This year Cunningham was asked to sing the anthem again at Davis Wade Stadium before turning the microphone over to the fans attending the Bulldogs home game against Alabama on Nov. 16. His skills include brilliantly signing the anthem and while leading the music at New Baptist Temple Church in Columbus have led some to suggesting he should tryout for the new reality television shows such as American Idol, The Voice or America's Got Talent.
"There's so many singing shows and so many people have asked me to do it but I've honestly never thought that much about that," Cunningham said. "I do intend on pursuing somehow becoming a Gospel recording artist but where that takes me is something I don't know right now."
Cunningham did say Monday that while his entire life has been focused on keeping his talents locally based, he has a passion to expand his talents and gifts beyond the scope of Lowndes and Oktibbeha County in Mississippi.
"Where I am now is wherever God takes me and my wife," Cunningham said. "We honestly don't plan to be here after I graduate because God is going to open up some big doors for us and take us some new places."
Cunningham was named to the 2013 Southeastern Conference Community Service Team on Monday for his involvement with area youth. He helped create the "Kids With Character" Basketball Camp at Columbus High School, and also works with ManHood Camp, which is designed for young boys to teach them how to grow up and be men with character and standards.
"Ever since high school I've always been busy with extracurricular activities," Cunningham said. "Life is really about prioritizing what is important."
Saturday, Cunningham will put on a MSU uniform for the last time at Humphrey Coliseum when the Bulldogs host South Carolina for a 3 p.m. tip. Cunningham will say goodbye to his basketball career in Starkville but it's that passion and drive to make a team he was told was unlikely by so many that have led him to being a key local figure. More importantly, it's Cunningham's people skills that have his head coach knowing he'll be a star in whatever he chooses to pursue next.
"He's a guy that is going to be successful in life because he goes about his business the right way," Ray said.
Cunningham hopes that his leadership and giving to the MSU program will translate into winning seasons after he has graduated and the team moves into future seasons under Ray. If that day finally comes, Cunningham will look at his journey at MSU even more fondly as being part of the rebuilding group that made the victories possible in Starkville.
"I'm really looking forward to that happening with the foundation and the mentality that has been set to overcome adversity because we're going to start to see that progression and that step up," Cunningham said. "I have no doubt there's really something to look forward to."
Follow Matt Stevens on Twitter @matthewcstevens.
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