By Max Calderone | Sports Writer
If you talk to Austin graduate student Richard Cunningham, you may get caught up in his down-to-earth personality and friendly manner. No, it’s not a façade, but it makes it easy to forget the stature that Cunningham holds as a student-athlete.
As a redshirt junior outfielder on the Baylor baseball team, Cunningham has consistently been one of the Bears’ leaders in batting average during his career. He has hit .297 in his three years and is hoping to be selected in the upcoming 2018 MLB Draft that is held June 4-6.
But what separates Cunningham from the pack is his discipline off the field and accomplishments in the classroom. He graduated early as a junior last spring with a degree in finance and is working on his MBA at Baylor as a graduate student.
When Cunningham realized he had the potential to earn his degree ahead of schedule, he said he was determined to complete his undergraduate years quickly because of the large amount of pride he takes in his school work.
“I was made aware of [graduating early] back in high school. When I knew that I could, I fast-tracked everything,” Cunningham said. “I think knowledge and wisdom are special things and the more I can obtain here, the better.”
It’s not just his smarts and his skills on the field that make Cunningham special, but his charismatic personality he brings with him everywhere he goes is sure to put a smile on the face of anyone who is lucky enough to meet him.
Baseball head coach Steve Rodriguez has joked with reporters that he thinks Cunningham could one day be president of the United States. Cunningham usually writes off the banter, but said politics is something that seriously interests him.
“I would totally do it if baseball doesn’t work out,” Cunningham said. “I’d get into public policy and politics and everything if that was available.”
Cunningham also said a career in private equity or real estate are also viable options, and his main goal is to serve people in any capacity.
As one of the oldest players on the Bears roster, Cunningham naturally fits the bill as a recognizable leader. Senior outfielder Levi Gilcrease said Cunningham does it all to motivate his teammates as one of the captains.
“He’s the heart and soul of the team this year,” Gilcrease said. “He’s the vocal leader, he leads by example, he’s really just the heart and soul of the team.”
Cunningham and Gilcrease have been friends since they both came to Baylor in 2014. Gilcrease said they have taken classes together and, though it’s always competitive, Cunningham’s work ethic and dedication to his grades are consistently above the cut.
“He is one of the smartest guys I’ve ever met,” Gilcrease said. “It’s not just natural smarts, he works so hard. His discipline off the field is just so impressive. He’s a great example of perseverance.”
Cunningham said he enjoys when teammates ask him for guidance in a class he had previously taken. He enjoys being a leader both on and off the field and helping his friends as an academic tutor.
“I am a guy they can come to with tutoring issues or homework questions,” Cunningham said. “I do swell up with pride when I’m able to explain to them a complicated context in a little more simple terms.”
As a student-athlete, time management is everything, and Cunningham said sometimes he gets by with unorthodox methods to stay on top of his responsibilities.
“I’ve studied in odd places, whether that’s in an airport or [on] planes or [in] hotels,” Cunningham said. “I just think it’s very simply put, when you’re off the field and it’s not baseball time, you’ve got to find moments to be productive. When you’re on the field, you’ve got to put all that stuff away and turn in to baseball mode.”
All that hard work hasn’t gone unnoticed, as Cunningham has earned many honors for his scholarly work, including being a two-time Academic All-Big 12 First Team member and receiving the 2017 Big 12 Baseball Scholar-Athlete of the Year award.
“They mean a ton to me, they mean a ton to my family. My mom and dad instilled in me a work ethic in all things, not just things that are fun and easy,” Cunningham said. “It’s reminds me to take pride in everything that I do.”
He has one wish for his teammates as the end of his baseball career at Baylor approaches — put in the work both on and off the field.
“I hope they see in me just that hard work, it pays. Treating people the right way, it pays,” Cunningham said. “I hope they see that if you apply yourself academically, you can open up doors to anything. Baseball will come to an end some day, but what you know and what you learn stays forever.”