LAS VEGAS –– Quietly, amidst the nationwide noise of protest and anger, there is peace scattered throughout the country on high school football fields.
In Southern Nevada, two high school football coaches have several similarities, including past NFL careers, and the common denominator is humbly molding boys into young men while preparing them for the real world – whether it includes football or not.
Four-time Pro Bowl quarterback Randall Cunningham is in his second season at Silverado in southeast Las Vegas. Last year, he led the Skyhawks to a 7-4 record, a second-place finish in the Northeast League and to the Division I Sunrise Region semifinals.
This year his team is 4-1, and one of those wins came at the expense of former Division 3A (formerly known as Division I-A) powerhouse Faith Lutheran, where former NFL defensive back Vernon Fox is in his fourth season.
Fox has a 28-8 career record, and that includes a state championship in his first season. This year things are different, as his Crusaders are riding with the big boys in Division 4A and are 2-3. Fox has kept his cool and knows there is a big picture to envision.
Both see the same picture. For their players, they have the same vision.
“When they brought me in and they offered me the job, one of the things I mentioned to them was if their sole concern was winning games and winning championships – I would be the wrong person,” said Fox, who played eight years for the San Diego Chargers, Detroit Lions, Washington Redskins and Denver Broncos. “Not that I wasn’t going to give my all to win every single week, to compete, and to have expectations to turn things in a different direction – that wasn’t going to be my sole focus. We have so many years to have access to these kids.
“Building someone to be a man of character, integrity, accountability and excellence is something that is going to stay with them forever. So that’s been our focus.”
It’s been both of their focus, as they not only bring an NFL pedigree to the sidelines, but Cunningham and Fox are also ordained ministers. Another similarity. Fox recently shared a post on Instagram that revealed the two have a combined 15 years coaching experience, 24 years NFL experience and 30 years ministry experience.
Through their ministry, they’ve found a doorway to common ground for many players who are young men of faith and can share that on the football field with their coaches.
It’s there – with the peace of faith – that Cunningham and Fox have introduced their players to the quiet amid the noise.
“As we’re building their character, we’re being role models on and off the field,” Cunningham said. “If they’re hungry, we’ll bring food in and feed them so they don’t have to leave campus.
“Our goal is getting everyone to say we’re all in this together. I want to build a unified culture in the Silverado area. I want to build a unified city.”
To build a unified city, you have to start in your own back yard, and that’s exactly the type of impact Cunningham made with his current starting quarterback a year ago when he was ready to turn in his jersey and cleats.
Christian Baltodano has had many conversations with Cunningham the past couple of years. But there are two that just might be the most pivotal chats the wise leader had with his young player.
Never give up and be dedicated was the mantra.
In Baltodano’s junior year, he didn’t start. And there was a point he didn’t want to play football anymore. But a heartfelt talk from Cunningham prevented him from quitting.
“He sat there, and he talked to me,” Baltodano said. “And he told me ‘you’ll get your chance and that’s where you’ll prove yourself.’ It made me realize no matter how hard things are, keep pushing forward and I’ll get what I want.”
Before this season, that heartfelt moment between the two had an entirely different tone, this time Cunningham addressing the quarterback of this year’s offense.
“He sat me down and began speaking to me often, about (how) I needed to be a leader – it was my time,” Baltodano said. “He has pushed me so hard, I’ve never been pushed so hard, but this is the best Silverado has done. I’ve never been more thankful for him to come into my life.
“He’s a blessing coming into my life.”
While Fox coaches at the largest Lutheran school in the United States and the largest non-public school in the state of Nevada, and prayer or bible study might be part of his team’s curriculum, Cunningham is at a public school and cannot instill any type of religious efforts as part of a requirement. But that hasn’t stopped the Skyhawks from offering prayer before and after practices and games. Whether it’s been Cunningham’s influence or the team simply offering praise on their own, his respect his felt.
“The integrity in the students of our school has changed,” Cunningham said. “Even if it’s just ‘hey coach is here, be quiet, don’t curse.’ That’s the players showing me respect, to their friends. Our kids our graduating, they’re doing better. These kids are being cared for.
“At Silverado, I can’t speak for the kids who go to church or don’t go to church, but these kids are going to graduate. If people ask me, I give them the address of my church. There’s an accountability on the part of the people who say they want to be a part of what we do outside the school.
“Living the life as a believer is very important. We don’t just say, we do.”
Walk the walk
Both Fox and Cunningham know all eyes are on them daily, and if they’re going to preach about high morals, integrity, work ethic and most importantly faith, they have to set the first example. Their accountability is just as important, if their student-athletes are going to listen and believe them.
“I’m privileged and blessed to be at a school like Faith Lutheran,” Fox said. “I’m an ordained minister and this is a call and a lifestyle for me. I try to practice this as my lifestyle every single day. I am an open testimony before these young men. My life has to reflect what I’m teaching them, otherwise I’m a hypocrite.
“I know all of the negative influences that surround them because I’ve made mistakes, I use those opportunities to share with them from an honest place, the potential of making negative decisions and where it can lead you. I didn’t hold back with them. I was honest, I was transparent, I shared my mistakes. Those are the moments where you experience the most growth.”
Thadius Fried was an introverted young guy who didn’t have much of a social life and was hoping he’d find that one avenue in high school that might break him from his shell. He found it in football, while he added that Fox’s influence has helped him off the field as well. Fried admitted he was once shy in front of large crowds, and found it hard to speak or deliver any sort of speech. But Fried credits Fox’s strength and mentoring toward him being able to deliver devotions in front of any crowd.
“Being a part of this team has been incredible,” Fried said. “I’ve been a Christian and a believer all my life. … Coach Fox has done a ton for me. I’ve learned what it means to be respectful to other people and learn how to just talk to other people. Coach Fox is a great speaker and he’s always spoken about Christ, and that meant a lot to me.
“He’s just helped me grow as a man so much, it’s indescribable in some ways. I definitely credit what I’ve become to Coach Fox.”
Fox says he knows football is temporary, no matter which level. Even the professionals have to call it quits someday. So his goal is to mold their spirit first, then their minds and souls. If they learn football along the way and win some games – that’s the bonus.
“I’ve had a lot of highs and lows when it comes to athletics,” Fox said. “My pro playing career was definitely a high, but there were a lot of negatives along the way. But when I look at the highest of highs, I don’t think any of them compare to the joy I’ve been able to experience to come in here and hear the stories from the parents or players of the impact we’ve been able to have on them.”Climate of our society
With a nationwide emphasis on kneeling for the flag in protest of racial inequality, both have taken a hard line where they stand when it comes to their players and their entire football programs.
“I had a couple of kids who looked like they were going to kneel and I said, ‘Oh no, you’re going to stand up and honor our country,'” Cunningham said. “This is not a black issue or a white issue. Let’s stand up and respect who have fought for us. Let’s honor them.
“On this team, we’re all going to be alike. That means you can take your opinion somewhere else. If you’re going to be a part of this, have respect. Don’t start things that cause distractions and let’s keep our focus.”
Fox starred at Las Vegas’ Cimarron-Memorial High School, the same school Denver Broncos linebacker Brandon Marshall graduated from. But while Fox understands the reasons for protesting, and appreciates someone using their rights to free speech, he also believes there is a time and place for such a thing.
“I think it’s wise to understand the climate of our society, to always have a hand in and keep contact with current events because that changes the approach of how we interact and instruct these young men,” Fox said. “This is the world they’re living in, with all these things going on. We have a marred society, and if you don’t touch on those things, you’re not preparing them for what they’re walking into.”
The two head coaches don’t talk often, but they confer at times and certainly talk more than they may have before Cunningham took over at Silverado. Prior to their game a couple of weeks back, they spoke for more than 30 minutes on the phone the day before, and for Fox it’s always a learning experience.
“As scripture says ‘iron sharpens iron,'” Fox said. “He is a veteran in so many areas. In a lot of ways there are things that I can learn from him. I just think it’s great that we are connected in so many ways.
“Ultimately we have the same mission, which is to go and impact lives for the kingdom. And not only that, to use the platform that we were blessed with. We both have the intention of using that platform for reasons that are greater than bringing attention to ourselves, and that connects us.”