HAVERHILL — D.J. Cunningham’s focus has now turned to the gridiron, preparing for his first season of Division 1 college football.
Over the weekend, however, the Haverhill High graduated senior wrapped up his career as a three-sport Hillie standout on high school track’s biggest stage.
Cunningham was a member of the Haverhill spring medley relay team that placed ninth out of 48 teams in the Emerging Elite division at New Balance Nationals in Greensboro, N.C. in 3:33.47.
“The atmosphere was absolutely amazing,” said Cunningham. “It’s one thing to even get there. But to be able to run in front of hundreds of people means so much more. I just wish I could do it again.”
That race closed out a stellar high school career for Cunningham, a Bryant University football recruit.
This spring on the track, Cunningham ran the Eagle-Tribune area’s seventh fastest 200-meter (23.11), was fifth in the area in the long jump (21-6) and was a member of the 4x400 relay that ran a 3:28.26 at EMass. Division 1 states.
In the fall, the 6-foot-1, 195-pounder earned All-Merrimack Valley Conference honors in football for the second straight season as a defensive back/receiver/kick returner.
And over the winter, Haverhill boys basketball coach Souleymane Wane called Cunningham the, “heart and soul,” of the Hillies squad that earned its first postseason berth in six seasons and won the MVC Division 2 title.
“D.J. could have coasted this track season,” said Hillies head track coach Mike Maguire. “He knew he was going to Bryant to play football and had a very strong basketball season. But that’s not D.J. He made this most of his track season and had a really good year.”
ON THE TRACK
With his football plans set, Cunningham admitted he considered not running track this spring to focus on training. But he quickly chose otherwise.
“There were times the thought of not doing track got in my head,” he said. “But the more I thought about it, I realized track makes me a better athlete.
“I’ve always taken a lot of pride in being a three-sport athlete. It was hard, but I loved it. And every sport I do, I give it 110 percent. I’m going to miss track a lot.”
Cunningham credited his heritage for sparking his love for track.
“My family is from Jamaica and moved to America right before I was born,” he said. “So, growing up, I loved watching (track icon) Usain Bolt. Watching him run the 200 made me feel like I could do it too. I’ve loved race since then. And I love Jamaica. I’ve been back 8-10 times.”
Cunningham delivered his best season this spring, with the highlight qualifying for New Balance Nationals by winning the spring medley relay (3:33.49) at the Division 1 state relays alongside Keith May, Sean Glass and Hayden Makarow.”
“It was almost the last event of the day,” Cunningham remembered. “I had been resting all day waiting for that race. When we qualified, it was amazing. We felt like we could compete against anyone in the country.”
ON THE GRIDIRON
Cunningham said his work in track played a huge role in becoming a Division 1 college football recruit.
“Track has helped me tremendously with my speed, agility and quickness,” he said. “All of that has played a huge role. It has helped me become more explosive on and off the football field.”
As a junior, Cunningham believed his future was likely at a Division 3 college or a postgraduate year at a prep school. But, last summer, that all changed.
“I remember walking through the halls at Haverhill High my junior year and my coach (Tim O’Connor) pulling me into his office,” Cunningham remembered. “He said, ‘Do you want to play college football?’ I said, ‘Of course!’
“I started going to a lot of camps and training even harder. Then more Division 2 and even Division 1 schools started looking at me. Then Bryant came in and gave me an offer. And when I went to visit, it just felt like home to me.”
Cunningham delivered a stellar season for the Hillies in the fall. He led a Haverhill defense that limited Andover to three points and nearly shocked an impressive Methuen squad — and as a receiver he caught a touchdown pass on Thanksgiving.
After the season, he officially accepted a partial scholarship to play football at Bryant.
While Cunningham knows the move to Division 1 college football will be tough, he feels like he is ready.
“It’s going to be a big adjustment,” he said. “It’s not every day you hear about a Haverhill kid going to play Division 1 college sports. I know it’s going to be hard. It’s a big challenge. But I’m going to go there, work as hard as I can and work to get Haverhill on the map.”
While Haverhill’s D.J. Cunningham is best known for his work on the football field and track, he also had an impressive basketball career.
He averaged 7.8 points per game this winter, earning MVC All-Star honors for the Hillies that went 11-11, earned its first postseason berth in six years and nearly stunned No. 3 seed Boston Latin in the first round of the Division 1 North tournament, falling 46-44.
Cunningham played the season alongside his little brother, sophomore Phillip Cunningham.
“(D.J.) is going to be missed because he was the heart and soul of Haverhill High basketball,” said Hillies coach Souleymane Wane after the season. “He showed commitment and great sportsmanship to teammates and opponents. He brought toughness, a great work ethic, and showed a positive attitude on and off the court.”
Contact David Willis at @DWillisET or DWillis@eagletribune.com.