ST. LOUIS, Mo. — Shortly after he heard his patellar tendon pop, Benny Cunningham figured this would be out of the question.
“I never imagined I would be here,” he says.
But here he was at practice Saturday, two days removed from his first NFL preseason game as a rookie running back with the St. Louis Rams, 10 months after a late hit on a sideline left the Middle Tennessee State University running back’s left knee searing in pain.
“He had a couple of good runs,” Rams coach Jeff Fisher says of Cunningham’s five carries for 20 yards in a 27-19 loss to Cleveland on Thursday. “He had to make some room on his own. He clearly has the injury behind him.”
Sometimes, when an opportunity comes and goes and then comes back, one appreciates it more. That seems to be the case with Cunningham, whose knee gave out halfway through the Blue Raiders’ 2012 season. He thought his chance at professional football had been robbed. Now that the possibility has returned, he is chasing a roster spot in the same dogged, no-frills way he carries a football.
“I try to be the most physical out of the backfield,” Cunningham says. “That’s my goal, my motive. Deliver a blow at the end of my runs.”
He showed it Thursday, when he often created something out of nothing. He bowled over defenders. He fell forward instead of allowing linebackers to push him back.
It was the same way he ran last year, a bruising approach that earned him an average of 6.2 yards per carry and 11 touchdowns in five games before his injury. It was the same style that convinced Fisher — who had previously watched Cunningham run over his youngest son’s high school football team in the Tennessee state playoffs — to invite Cunningham to camp.
“It was something to build off of,” Cunningham says of his NFL debut. “It kind of gave me something of a base point to start from. Now I understand what I have to work on.”
Cunningham didn’t hear Fisher praise him Saturday. As his teammates moved toward a white tent to kiss their wives and hold their kids after practice, he stood 10 feet in front of a wheeled machine that fired footballs at his face. He caught one after another. He took two steps forward, and the balls came faster.
The cameras that film every snap of practice had been turned off. Few watched. Those who did saw a guy working extra, perhaps because he values this opportunity more than some. Follow Ben Frederickson on Twitter (@Ben_Fred), or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.