Randall, Samahndi, Bruce, and Anthony Cunningham. | Credit: Jean Ziesenhenne

It all started when the oddly shaped track at Santa Barbara High’s Peabody Stadium was deemed unfit to run on because of cracks and potholes in its hard, paved surface. Thus began 12 years of visions, planning, fundraising, and construction that resulted in the complete transformation of the 1924 vintage stadium and track into what SBHS principal Elise Simmons called “a state-of-the-art sports complex” during a dedication ceremony last Saturday.

The costs were significant — $39 million and four years when the stadium was off limits to Dons athletic teams — but this fall, the investment will begin to pay off with the practices, the games (football, soccer, lacrosse), the spirit-inducing bands and cheerleaders, the workouts, the track meets, and the assemblies that generate strong bodies, aspirations, friendships, and loyalties that students will carry on for the rest of their lives.

Attesting to the value of that experience were 900 donors, most of them SBHS alumni, who supported the renovation. A partnership of the Foundation for Santa Barbara High (represented by director Katie Jacobs and capital campaign chair Greg Tebbe) and the Santa Barbara Unified School District (president Kate Ford and past and present superintendents Cary Matsuoka and Hilda Maldonado) pulled everything together.

The Cunningham track at Santa Barbara High School. | Credit: Jean Ziesenhenne

Dozens of guests, seated below the arches and tile-roofed towers at the top of the grandstand, duly applauded the names of special benefactors — the Allreds, the Jordanos, the Borgatellos — during Saturday’s ceremony. But the heartiest outburst was stirred by the announcement of Cunningham Track.

“It’s beautiful,” Randall Cunningham said as he gazed at the 400-meter ribbon of nine lanes (alternately green and golden brown) with an Olympic-quality synthetic surface that circled the playing field, which was also modernized with durable turf.

Randall (class of ’81) is the youngest of four Cunningham brothers who excelled on the Dons football and track teams. They created lasting memories, and an anonymous donor assured they would not be forgotten by bestowing their name on the track.

Bruce Cunningham (’79) recalled that when he was a sprinter at Peabody Stadium, the 100-yard dash and high hurdles had to be run on the football field because the old track was too short. “Wow, this is nice,” he said, surveying the new, long straightaway. “I wish we had these facilities. I hope the kids take advantage of it.”

Randall competed in the high jump, and after retiring from an outstanding career as an NFL quarterback, he took up coaching his children in Las Vegas. Later this month, he and his daughter Vashti, the U.S. women’s high jump champion, will be going to Tokyo, where she will be competing in the Olympic Games for the second time. She has cleared 2.02 meters (6′7½″), an inch below Randall’s SBHS record. Vashti received a warm Santa Barbara welcome from the crowd Saturday.

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Anthony Cunningham (’73), whose son Cheroke was a Dons football star, said the family legacy began with the brothers’ parents. Samuel Cunningham Sr. came from Texas, his wife, Mabel, came from Tennessee, and they found a home in Santa Barbara by the railroad tracks. “We weren’t rich,” Anthony said. “Dad pulled carts at the train station. Mom was a nurse. She died in 1980, Dad in 1982. We learned to be tough, have faith, and love our parents.”

The oldest of the brothers, forever known to football fans as Sam “Bam” Cunningham (’69), was unable to attend Saturday’s ceremony. His daughter Samahndi Cunningham said he is recovering from a health episode. Samahndi, a field representative for state assembly member Autumn Burke, joined her uncles at the stadium ceremony.

Sam’s presence was felt at the gathering. Kate Ford of the school board, another member of the class of ’69, said her locker was next to his. “He had a great smile, great spirit, great talent, and great heart,” she said.

Sam played with great passion for the Dons. He once told me how he would bring his USC football teammates back to his old stomping grounds to impress them:

“We were the ‘Big Five’ — Charles Young, Edesel Garrison, Manfred Moore, and myself. We came in as freshmen and hung together. I’d bring them up to the house, Mom and Pop would feed them, and I’d take them to a Dons football game. We didn’t have any money, so they’d say, ‘How we going to get into the game?’ I say, ‘The same way we did when I was a kid.’ We climbed over the fence. Every time I get together with them, we start talking about Santa Barbara, because they were so impressed by what we have here. Friday night football at Texas is whatever it is, but Friday night football in Peabody Stadium was the deal.”

The place is spruced up to be the deal again.

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