Bennie Lee Cunningham, Jr., the first son of Carol and Bennie L. Cunningham, Sr., was born in Laurens, South Carolina. Following opportunities early in their careers, his parents moved the family to Spartanburg, Gaffney, Chesterfield, and finally Seneca.
Cunningham participated in football, baseball, and track at Seneca High School. In 1971, he was selected as a high school All-American in football.
Cunningham continued his academic and athletic career by attending Clemson University on a football scholarship. During his four-year tenure, he received numerous awards–foremost, the selection as a consensus All-American after his junior year. He was the first African American from Clemson University to receive the honor.
After his senior season, he was a repeat selection to several All-American teams. Additionally, he was two-time All-Atlantic Coast Conference (’74 and ’75) and was selected as a member of the All-Atlantic Coast Conference 50th Anniversary Team, East-West Shrine Bowl Team, Hula Bowl Team., Japan Bowl Team, Kodak All-American Team, Playboy All-American Team and the All- South Team selected by Southern Living Magazine.
Cunningham was also the first African American to receive the prestigious “Frank Howard Award for Bringing Excellence to Clemson University.” Personally, Bennie says his “proudest collegiate honor” was earning a Bachelor of Arts degree from Clemson University. Later, he received a Master of Human Resources Development degree from Clemson.
The Pittsburgh Steelers of the National Football League selected Bennie Cunningham in the first round of the NFL draft after his senior season. He played ten years for the Steelers and was a member of two World Championship Teams, performing in Super Bowl XIII and Super Bowl XIV.
One of the most memorable moments for Bennie and many Pittsburgh fans came in a football game against the Cleveland Browns during the ’78 season. In overtime, Bennie scored the winning touchdown on a 40-yard flea-flicker pass from Terry Bradshaw.
This play was selected as one of ten Fantastic Finish plays of the 1970s, and it is on video display in the NFL Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.
Cunningham retired from professional football as the Steelers seventh all-time leading receiver and is the all-time reception leader among tight ends for the Steelers, having totaled 200 catches and 20 touchdowns in his career. He was named to the Steelers 50th Anniversary team.
Currently, he is a career counselor at West-Oak High School in Westminster, South Carolina.