For soccer standout Joel Cunningham, Howard was his mecca
Senior midfielder helped Howard finally overcome decades of mediocrity
The numbers just didn’t add up for young Joel Cunningham.
Why would he accept the first college offer to come his way — from a coach he hardly knew, who had just signed on to lead a program that hadn’t had any serious success since Richard Nixon was president? Why wouldn’t the Jamaican star trust the process and wait for the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill or Virginia Tech, two schools on his list, to make him an offer?
“I was kinda looking all over the place with schools,” said Cunningham, who had made a name for himself at Wolmer’s Boys’ School in Kingston, Jamaica, and with Portmore United F.C. and Rivoli United F.C. “I didn’t necessarily want to be in the DMV [D.C.-Maryland-Virginia] area, but I hadn’t gotten any other offers and I hadn’t gotten in touch with any other coaches.”
At the time of the offer in 2015 from newly hired Howard University coach Phillip Gyau, Cunningham was a senior at Wolmer’s, where he’d been a student and player since 2008. The left-footed midfielder-turned-defender had become a bit of a big deal, enough to warrant recognition from the country’s under-20 national team.
A conversation with his dad, Donovan, about college brought some clarity. “There were a lot of people discouraging me from coming to Howard. But my father said, ‘Honestly, if you’re gonna play at a higher level, there are going to be times where you’re on a team that has been in a rut, and if you can get that team to a higher level, then that will make you a better player.’ That’s what he told me, and so by the time Coach Gyau gave me the offer, I took it and I left it at that.”
Cunningham had never been to Washington, D.C. His only trip to America was in 2007, when he traveled with his grandfather to Camden, New Jersey. Of course, he knew from his research that Howard was the Harvard of historically black colleges, and he knew he’d get a top-notch education. But he knew nothing of the school’s soccer dominance in the 1970s, of its national championship seasons in 1971 and ’74, or of the players, many of them fellow Jamaicans, whose names adorn the university’s Athletic Hall of Fame.
“I didn’t know about [the school winning a national championship] until I came to Howard,” Cunningham said. “I only knew about the recent history, how they weren’t doing well.”
Howard’s soccer program had been mired in mediocrity for decades — its last shining moment coming in 1989, when freshman goalkeeper Shaka Hislop led the team, then coached by Keith Tucker, to the NCAA final four.
When Gyau took the job in 2014, he knew the task was to rebuild a program that had gone 1-17 the year before and which managed to amass just 26 wins going back to 2005. But for Gyau, who starred for the Bison in the mid-1980s and earned six caps for the U.S. national team, this was personal.
“The job was appealing to me because I went to Howard University, and to see the program down the way it was, I just wanted to come and do something to help, you know? So I took it on,” said Gyau. He succeeded Michael Lawrence, who was fired after six seasons and a record of 18-92-2.
Gyau knew that to be successful, he’d have to dig the program out of the sports equivalent of the sunken place. “I inherited an APR [Academic Progress Rate] from the NCAA, which restricted us from postseason play and also placed limitations on us with regard to our practice time,” said Gyau, 52. “My first year we practiced three times during the week, with one day dedicated to academic work and one mandatory off day. My first two years we practiced three times during the week, and then there was no spring competition and no spring practices. That was part of the ban, and we were also on academic probation.”
To rebuild, Gyau needed players whose motivation went beyond the soccer field. He needed anchors willing to steady the ship. “My first [recruiting] trip was to Jamaica, and Cunningham was my first recruit,” Gyau said. “Can you believe that? Now the program is stabilizing and he’s leaving [because he’s a senior].”
Getting the best players to buy in to Howard was hard — after all, this isn’t the 1970s, when boys from the Caribbean and Africa jumped at the chance to come to “the mecca” solely for the education. “Even though we want to win games, the student comes first, of course, then soccer second and then your social life always a distant third,” Gyau said.
Luckily for Gyau, his No. 1 recruit was cool with that plan. As the middle child between two brothers, Cunningham came from a family of “numerics,” as his mother, Darlene, calls them. His parents met at the University of the West Indies in 1986, both majoring in management studies, and passed on their appreciation for numbers to Joel.
“I think we both did, me and his father, because we are both in the accounting field,” said Darlene Cunningham, who works for Courts Jamaica, while Donovan Cunningham is an executive at the law firm Myers, Fletcher & Gordon. “I remember when he was younger, their grandfather used to send these workbooks for them and they’d practice their reading and their mathematics. It was quite novel to us because [the books] had a lot of pictures and were very practical, and [Joel] would pick up his older brothers’ math books and work through them.”
Once he arrived in D.C., Gyau immediately gave Cunningham the captain’s armband. The lanky 6-foot-4, 185-pound ball-winner responded with consistent play and a quiet, lead-by-example demeanor.
“When I met him I knew he was special, very serious and focused, and he always balanced his academics with sports,” said Roy Simpson, manager of national teams for the Jamaica Football Federation. “As a matter of fact, two months ago we were looking at a general pool of U23 players that we’re tracking, and Joel was one of them. We know that our defenders on the senior team are getting older, and we see Joel fitting into that equation down the road.”
Even with Cunningham in the lineup, Gyau’s first year was forgettable. The team didn’t win a single game, going 0-17-2. But Gyau saw reason for optimism. “We haven’t gone under a 3.0 GPA as a team since I’ve been at Howard,” the coach said. “We’ve always had a 3.0 because my No. 1 goal was to just correct the classroom stuff. That was my No. 1 goal. Then you can stabilize the soccer side of the program.”
Gyau moved Cunningham from center back into the midfield during his junior year to help stabilize a less-than-potent attack. Cunningham responded by growing into the all-important role of ball-winner and with the offensive tools to get into the opponent’s goal area. And he did all this while leading the team in minutes played (1,827) and scoring two goals.
In the classroom, Cunningham’s light shined even brighter. He earned his accounting degree in three years and is currently working toward his master’s degree in accounting. Last summer, he interned at PricewaterhouseCoopers, the second-largest professional services firm in the world. After completing that internship, Cunningham was told he’d have a full-time job waiting for him after graduation.
Said Darlene Cunningham: “Not only did he complete his [bachelor’s degree in accounting], but he graduated cum laude, so that meant he kept his focus academically and he balanced that well, and I’m really proud of him.”
In an industry where coaches are often only as good as their last game, Gyau — even after a 2-9-3 season, including five losses by a single goal — points to a double-overtime 1-0 win against Rutgers on Oct. 9 as a sign that the program is slowly pulling itself out of its long drought.
“Now the Athletic Department and the president are keen on watching us get better and go back to where we were,” said Gyau, who had 10 players named to the Sun Belt Conference (SBC) Academic Honor Roll List and another 10 on the SBC Commissioner’s List for the 2017-18 season. “With every little step that we take, we get better.”
Cunningham agrees: “You can’t really say Howard can’t do anything in the next two, three years, or that Howard will always be the losing team. That’s how soccer is — the game evolves. Three, four players can come in and change the whole program, honestly. There are so many variables that can come into play. I really believe that there’s always a possibility for the team to excel in the next two or three years.”
Before the Howard-Coastal Carolina regular-season matchup on Oct. 20, captain Cunningham was among the three seniors honored with posters for their services to Howard athletics. The reigning SBC champs spoiled the seniors’ day with a 2-1 victory, however. Fast-forward three weeks and the Bison will get another shot at redemption as they face the Chanticleers on Nov. 7 in the SBC tournament in what could be Cunningham’s final game as a Bison. Cunningham was named to the SBC first team, while senior teammates Victor Guirma and junior Carlos Caro were named to the conference’s second team.
This holiday season will be bittersweet for him. Ever since he started at Howard, he’s returned to Jamaica for the holidays to be with friends and family. This year, he’ll stay in D.C. to prepare for the Adidas MLS Player Combine in Orlando, Florida, from Jan. 3 to 9.
Cunningham got a taste of MLS when he trained with DC United’s U23s in the summer of 2016 and ’17. “When I first came to the U.S., I always thought that I could try and look into MLS. But my personal goal was to play in Europe, and use maybe MLS as a platform, so I’m looking to stay around for the Christmas break for the first time.”
That’s not exactly news that Darlene Cunningham wants to hear, but a mother knows her son. “He’s always been goals-driven,” she said. “Joel sets a goal, and that’s what he works toward.”