Former USF men’s soccer player Jeff Cunningham was 3 years old when he received a gift from his father that changed his life forever.
It was merely a soccer ball, but Cunningham, living in a poor Jamaican town, said it meant the world to him.
“It is the only recognition that I have of him,” Cunningham said.
Nearly one year later, Cunningham’s father died, and that soccer ball left a lasting memory in Cunningham’s mind.
“That soccer ball was the only one in the neighborhood because everyone was poor and didn’t have enough money to buy one,” Cunningham said. “It was all we had to play with so if it was run over by a car or bitten by a dog, we would sew it back together.”
Cunningham, now a Major League Soccer player, grew up in Montego Bay and began playing organized soccer when he was 10 years old.
His mother, Deloris Morgan, worked four jobs at a time to help support her son’s dreams of playing collegiate soccer.
“We came a very long way from very hard life, and it was difficult to provide for him,” Morgan said.
At 14, Cunningham moved to the U.S., settling in Crystal River, Fla. He attended Crystal River High School on a visitor visa, which is for non-immigrants looking to enter the United States temporarily for business, pleasure, tourism or medical treatment.
“My mother was chasing the American Dream when she made a way for me to move to Florida.” Cunningham said. “Because I was the youngest child, I was granted a visa to come to the (United) States.”
He was then granted a visa extension, a student visa, and a green card.
“Moving to the U.S. was important for Jeff to begin playing soccer at higher levels,” Morgan said.
Cunningham continued to play club and high school soccer, with his mother working hours on end to help pay for his tournaments.
“She provided, and I don’t even know how she managed it all,” he said.
Cunningham’s performances then helped take his game to the next level. In 1993, while playing in a high school tournament, he was scouted by then- USF men’s soccer coach T. Logan Fleck. He was soon offered a scholarship.
“Fleck said that he had never granted a freshman a full scholarship before me,” Cunningham said. “I couldn’t believe that I was going to college and everything would be paid for.”
The investment USF made in Cunningham set up a successful college career.
As a sophomore and a junior, Cunningham was named first-team All-Conference USA, and as a senior he was named Conference USA Player of the Year, finishing his career at USF with 41 goals and 36 assists.
Cunningham also helped the Bulls win the 1996 Conference USA Championship.
And his success at USF helped fulfill another dream: playing professionally.
Cunningham was selected ninth overall by the Columbus Crew in the 1998 MLS College Draft.
“Moving from college to professional soccer was the most difficult transition that I ever had to make,” Cunningham said. “It was a huge gamble for me.”
Cunningham, named MLS Player of the Week three times this year, is in his 12th season of his MLS career. He plays with FC Dallas, but he has spent time with the Columbus Crew, Colorado Rapids, Real Salt Lake and Toronto FC.
He ranks second on the all-time MLS goals scored list with 116 career goals.
However, Cunningham said his biggest accomplishment is still being in the league.
“The turnaround in the league is limited and guys don’t last very long,” he said. “One accomplishment still eludes me … the MLS Cup. I want that before my career is over.”
Cunningham came into this year’s MLS season fourth all-time in goals scored, and as he continues to pursue his professional career at 33 years old, he still remembers his time as a Bull. USF is ranked in the top 10 in the country this year.
“I’m proud to say that I went to USF. The program is going in the right direction,” he said. “I had the chance to follow them last year during their run in the NCAA Tournament.”
Cunningham, now a U.S. citizen, is already trying to keep soccer in his family. He is married and has a 1-year-old daughter Mikayla, who he insists will be a soccer player.
“She just turned 1 (years old), and I already force her to use her left foot,” Cunningham said. “Left-footed kickers are rare, so I’m getting her ready to play soccer.”