The 2017 football season is still a few weeks away, but a Jackets player has already received recognition for his performance on the field—from University of Alabama Coach Nick Saban.
Sophomore Isaak Cunningham was among a selected group of players presented with the All-Saban Award at the three-day football camp held this past week at the home of the Crimson Tide. More than 400 high school players from across the country attended the Nick Saban Football Camp.
“I really thought all the awards would go to seniors, when they began announcing names,” Cunningham said. “When I heard my name called, I thought, ‘no way.’ The award was given to a few players in each position who had stayed motivated, worked hard and improved, but more than that, it was about their attitude.”
Cunningham’s father, Tony, accompanied him to the camp and admits he was also caught off guard when his son’s name was announced.
“To me, it was a great honor,” he said. “I also thought the recognitions would go to the upper classmen. I think the coaches noticed those players and how they acted when they didn’t think anyone was looking—how they reacted after a tough hit or a missed play. They noticed how hard Isaak worked and the attitude he had throughout camp.”
“It’s like my dad said—there’s always someone watching you when it seems no one is looking,” Isaak said. “Receiving this award from Coach Saban makes me feel accomplished, but also makes me know I can do more than I think I can.”
The opportunity to attend football camp at the University of Alabama has been a longtime hope for the 15-year-old. His father’s family is from Alabama and Isaak says he’s been a Crimson Tide fan since he was a little.
“When Alabama played the Longhorns for the National Championship, I went for them and they won,” he said. “They’ve been my team ever since.”
The camp experience was everything Cunningham thought it would be—and more. He hoped he might catch a glimpse of Coach Saban. As it turned out, Saban had a major presence throughout the camp.
“I was thinking he might be there on the first day to greet us, then turn it over to his assistant coaches and players working the camp,” Isaak said. “But he was there every day, working with us. We all met him the first day and had our pictures made with him. But then he’d walk around and we could say ‘hi’ if we wanted—and I did.”
Cunningham also had the chance to meet Dallas Cowboy Terrell Owens, who made an appearance at the camp.
“I have always looked up to Terrell Owens,” Cunningham said. “When I was little I had kid-sized football helmet and I would wear it when I watched him during the Cowboys games. It was really great to see him at camp. He has a really deep voice and his hands were huge.”
While the encounters with football stars made for some memorable moments for the Cleburne player, the impact of the camp on his skills and his confidence are what Cunningham values most.
“There were some huge sophomores—it was crazy,” Cunningham said. “I felt intimidated here and there by the big—and talented—people on the field with me. Then I took a closer look and saw others who were my height and they weren’t hesitating or second-guessing themselves and I started doing that, too.”
“This has built my confidence a lot and showed me what I need to do with my spare time and how I need to push myself more,” Isaak said. “I got knocked around some and I see that I need to work on my weight. The coaches were great to help in so many ways. I learned a lot about footwork and am going to build on that skill.”
Cunningham also learned a little more about himself as a person. What happened in Alabama isn’t staying in Alabama.
“I learned that I’m a lot better than I can be when I’m pushed by competition,” he said. “I’ve also been inspired to be a better player and teammate. There was no negativity at camp, only positive words and positive actions. I want to do that in Cleburne with my teammates. Positivity boosts confidence and as a team, we can be great help to each other.”
Head Football Coach Casey Walraven was among the first to learn of the recognition achieved by one of his players. He sent Isaak a congratulatory text, which Cunningham thought was “pretty cool.”
“This speaks a lot about the young talent that he is and what he can be as he continues to work and progress,” Walraven said. “It’s very special to be among the top receivers at a camp of this magnitude. Isaak is a great kid and works hard. This should give him great confidence, coming into varsity.”
“We’re trying to not just develop elite athletes, but elite people,” Walraven said. “We want to help our players grow in character just as much as they grow in their playing skills. It’s great to have a Cleburne Yellow Jacket honored for displaying outstanding character.”
The three days of intense training and practice at the University of Alabama football camp has Cunningham more than ready for Cleburne football camp.
“I got home late Wednesday and asked if I could be taken to workouts the next morning,” he said. “I need football to be here—right now. My adrenaline is really high and I want to keep it up by working out with my buddies. I want to stay in the spirit with two-a-days coming up.”
Cunningham says he gets “hyped up” thinking about the 2017 season, and his new football coach.
“We’ve been learning a lot of new plays under Coach Walraven,” he said. “He’s a good coach. He gets to know you—as a student first, and a player second. He pushes us, but also makes us feel like we count, we matter and he wants great things for us.”
Cunningham also feels the responsibility of being a starting player for the Jackets, as a role model for younger peers.
“I remember when I was a kid looking up to Reggie Robinson and Kameron Pickett,” he said. “Now that I’m at their level, I need to be an example for younger kids, like they were for me.”
Isaak’s father believes his multi-sport son is up for all the challenges ahead as he begins a new season of football and his sophomore year of high school. While Isaak may be a reflection of the athletic roots within his family, it’s more than that, according to Tony Cunningham.
“It’s in his genes, but honestly, we give all glory to God,” Cunningham said. “He gave Isaak his abilities. We’re blessed to have a kid like him.”
Cleburne’s Isaak Cunningham shows off the All-Saban Award he received from Coach Nick Saban as a top receiver in the high school football camp held at the University of Alabama. The sophomore has landed a starting position for the Jackets in the 2017 season in his first year on varsity. (Courtesy Photo)
Isaak Cunningham is a longtime University of Alabama fan and is already planning a return trip to Coach Nick Saban’s high school camp in 2018. The slot receiver says there’s still a lot to be gained as a returning participant. (Courtesy Photo)