MORGANTOWN — For the first time since its inception in 2014, a football player from the Morgantown area has earned the Fulton Walker Award, given to the state’s top special teams player, by the West Virginia Sports Writers Association.
University’s speedy senior return specialist Daminn Cunningham earns the honor after tallying four kickoff returns for a touchdown, one punt return for a touchdown and averaging more than 35 yards per punt as the team’s main punter.
“Everybody always says there’s three phases of the game, but I feel most people do overlook the special teams,” said University head coach John Kelley. “He had five special teams touchdowns and a multitude of long returns that really flipped the field and put us in scoring position.”
Cunningham’s first kickoff return for a score came in the Hawks’ second game of the year against Parkersburg South. It was midway through a high-scoring first quarter and gave University a 14-13 lead after Cunningham raced 88 yards for the touchdown. Parkersburg South only scored once more after that and the Hawks rallied for a 62-33 victory.
“Every kick return and punt return was special to me because it was a way to help my team succeed,” Cunningham said. “The return against Parkersburg South is memorable because up until that point, South was keeping with us and the team seemed to be losing confidence in ourselves. The return was a play that sparked our team’s confidence and afterward we went out and dominated.”
His biggest day came on Oct. 15 in a 63-6 win against Buckhannon-Upshur. Cunningham accounted for four University touchdowns — a 53-yard punt return to open the scoring, another 53-yard punt return in the second quarter, a 68-yard kickoff return to start the second half, and a 77-yard touchdown reception.
“It’s not something you’d expect from a guy with his frame but he loved to prove people wrong,” Kelley said of Cunningham, who is listed at 5-foot-6, 155 pounds.
Kelley also said Cunningham played the last three games of the season with a broken collarbone. “That’s pretty amazing,” Kelley said. “He was a true football player. He did everything for us.”
In University’s Class AAA quarterfinal loss to Cabell-Midland, Cunningham had a 65-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. He also was a backup running back on offense and free safety on defense in the Hawks’ 10-0 undefeated regular season where they outscored opponents, 506-136.
“To go undefeated this year meant the world to us,” Cunningham said. “The seniors on this team had not-so-pleasing prior seasons, so to go out as one of the best football teams in school history was a special feeling. We forever etched our name into UHS football history to go 10-0.
“The accomplishments were larger than life. Winning the OVAC and TRAC will always be one of my fondest memories. Being able to beat our cross-town rival (Morgantown) at home in front of our friends, family and community will always hold a special place in the hearts of everyone, especially the seniors.”
Kelley, who just wrapped up his 35th season at University, said the coaching staff recognized Cunningham’s speed and agility four years ago when he was a freshman. Cunningham said he has paid greater attention to changing directions on the field, noticing he’d slow down a bit when trying to turn up field. A small correction on his footwork paid off with the great results this season.
“My coaches and teammates were a huge help in the process,” Cunningham said. “They always pushed me to become better. I was taught to never be satisfied with where I am, that I can always improve my talents.”
Cunningham is also an accomplished track and field athlete. He is the reigning state champion in the long jump (21′ 8.75) and a worthy participant in the 100-meter dash, 200-meter dash, 400-meter run, 4×100-meter relay and 4×200-meter relay. He can also throw the shot put.
He hopes to take his talents to the collegiate level, in either football or track and field. Kelley said he has been in contact with several Division II schools, including West Liberty University. Cuningham hopes that another successful track and field season will help to garner attention from more schools across the country.
Cunningham plans on majoring in history in college with the goal of becoming a teacher.
The Fulton Walker Award is named for the former Martinsburg, WVU and NFL return specialist. Cunningham is the first University player to win a WVSWA award since Evan Parrow won the Moss Award in 2018 as the state’s top wide receiver.
Cunningham will be presented with his award at the 75th annual Victory Awards Dinner which is scheduled for May 1 at the Embassy Suites in Charleston.
By MATTHEW PEASLEE