NEWTOWN SQUARE — Take one look at A.J. Cunningham and you might think he is either a shifty running back and shutdown defensive back.
At 6-0, 195 pounds coming into the season, Cunningham doesn’t have the size typical of most starting linebackers, but that’s what he is.
He’s a pretty good player, undersized and all.
“No offense taken,’ he said with an infectious, wide smile.
Cunningham, when asked what draws him to playing the position, gave a simple answer.
“I love it,’ he said “I just get to look and read, you know what I mean? I like to hit people, I like to tackle people. That’s all a part of the fun.’
Zach Falcone, another senior at Marple Newtown and a starting offensive and defensive lineman, could vouch for his teammate and friend.
“He’s a physical kid,’ Falcone said. “That’s what helps him out. He’s a lot more physical than most other people and is always working to get better.’
So what if Cunningham isn’t built like Dan Connor or Matt Galambos, two Division I linebackers from Delco, who made their mark at the scholastic level in part because they were built like lumberjacks. And so what if Cunningham’s going against offensive linemen who are anywhere from 100-156 pounds heavier than he is.
Cunningham is a bulldog, and quietly one of the top linebackers in the Central League since the start of last season. As a junior, Cunningham finished second on the team with 82 tackles. He, like Falcone, is extremely important to the potential success of the 2013 Tigers, who are coming off an impressive, double-overtime victory over Strath Haven last week that enabled them to improve to 1-1. Cunningham led the way on defense, posting a team-high 14 tackles, two sacks and three tackles for a loss.
“Offensively, too, A.J. has really helped us. He had been a running back earlier in his career. We moved him to tight end, and last year toward the end of the season he played some running back again,’ coach Ray Gionta said. “He’s really moved around and done a lot of different things for us. He’s an aggressive kid and a good ballplayer.’
In addition to playing linebacker and tight end, Cunningham is the team’s primary holder on kicks and extra points.
“He’s more of a leader by action. He’s an inside linebacker and a returning starter, which we don’t have many of,’ Gionta said. “The kids, I think, look to him and, yeah, I do think he’s a leader. But he’s a quiet leader, and shows what he’s made of on the field.’
When Marple Newtown squares off against Harriton tonight (7 o’clock kickoff, broadcast live on marplenewtownfootball.com), the 6-4, 285-pound Falcone will remember what it was like the last time he faced the Rams. It was the night everything changed.
“I went down with an ACL injury,’ he said. “It was actually the game against Harriton and it was Homecoming.’
Falcone knew when the injury occurred. He thought something could be seriously wrong, but he gutted through the pain and didn’t realize what had happened until after the Tigers emerged victorious over the Rams, 45-27.
“I played the whole game, I made it through, but after that I was like, ‘ Man, my knee hurts.’ I woke up the next morning and my knee was the size of a balloon,’ Falcone said. “I knew right then, I had to go to the doctor’s.’
Falcone doesn’t have pent-up rage or hold any ill will because it’s Harriton. It wasn’t the fault of any player in particular. The injury happened by accident.
“It wasn’t like a cheap shot or anything. When it happened, it was clean,’ he said. “I was pursuing a play and felt a click in my knee, but I got back out there. It was Homecoming and I knew I had to play.’
Falcone is grateful he came back in time to play one more full season of football.
“I put in a lot of lifting and working with coaches, doing everything I could to get better,’ he said. “I need to play well — the team needs me to play well. This is my last year playing football, so I knew I had to fight my way back.’
The Tigers face a Harriton team desperate for its first win. All Central League matchups take place a night earlier than usual, in observance of the Jewish holiday Yom Kippur.
“They improved a lot from last year, I think,’ Cunningham said of Harriton. “They’re solid up front. They run some crisp plays… so I guess we have to execute our plays and be physical.’
For Cunningham and Falcone, that shouldn’t be a problem.