Despite his best efforts, Randall Cunningham just can't retire from football. The former Vikings quarterback tried walking away from the game twice, dabbling in a variety of activities to fill the void.
"Going golfing and going to the movies, and concerts or boxing matches," Cunningham said. "It got boring."
After his second retirement from the NFL, in 2002, Cunningham settled in Las Vegas permanently and became an ordained minister two years later. With his wife, Felicity, the couple began their own church, Remnant Ministries, where Cunningham gives three services every Sunday to a small audience and, he estimated, around 4,000 online viewers. In the meantime, he has also coached their two children: Vashti and Randall II are both Olympic team hopefuls in track and field.
But this summer, when the Oakland Raiders settled in Las Vegas, football came knocking. Coach Jon Gruden lured Cunningham back — as the Raiders' chaplain.
"That guy warms my heart," Gruden said. "He is special. He has a great way of spreading the Lord's word, he is a great resource and great friend to all of us."
Gruden, who was Philadelphia's offensive coordinator in Cunningham's final season with the Eagles, added: "To be reunited with him at this point in life is really cool."
No other NFL team has as its spiritual adviser a former superstar, but both men insist that Cunningham maintains a singular focus. "I coach them in the spiritual aspects of life, and that's it," he said.
The reality of his first season as Raiders chaplain has been different from the hands-on pastoring and camaraderie that have been made impossible this season because of the NFL's COVID-19 protocols.
"I haven't had the opportunity to slap Zay Jones a high-five, or hug Alec Ingold, or give a fist bump to Darren Waller," the former quarterback said.
Instead, Cunningham stays in touch through phone calls and texts. He hosts a 7 p.m. Bible study on a video call the night before games where, sometimes, football seeps into the message.
The night before the second game of the season, when the New Orleans Saints visited, Cunningham focused on the original underdog story — David's battle with Goliath.
"I said, 'Man, here comes Goliath, the great champion from Gath, all the accolades and all the victories,' " Cunningham recalled. "Drew Brees is the man, so is the coach, but you have to take Goliath down."
As he spoke to the Raiders on the video call that night, Cunningham was so focused on the story of young David knocking out the giant with a slingshot that he kept accidentally calling Derek Carr, the team's starting quarterback, David (the name of Derek's older brother, a retired NFL quarterback).
The next day, Derek Carr played like the biblical David, throwing three TD passes and leading the Raiders to a 34-24 win in their first game at home in Las Vegas. "It felt like I had affected them in a way that gave them a little confidence," Cunningham said. "Not false confidence, but to give them true confidence to go out and be who they are."
In a text message, Raiders receiver Nelson Agholor said: "Randall is amazing. The same passion he played with, he preaches with."
Cunningham grew up in Santa Barbara, Calif., going to church on Sundays, but it wasn't until he came out of retirement for the first time in 1997 that he became serious about his faith.
He returned with Minnesota in 1997 and became involved with the Vikings' ministry. He said he started praying between plays and during commercial breaks: "Lord, I am about to launch this ball to Randy Moss. Please let him catch it for a touchdown."