T.J. Cunningham, Killed in Dispute Over Parking Spot, Had “smile That Could Take Over a Room”
When students from Aurora’s Hinkley High School entered T.J. Cunningham’s office, he would give them a mirror.
“Who’s the most important person in your world,” he would ask the teens.
They would respond with a list: mother, father, siblings.
“Nope, wrong,” he would say, as the kid stared into the mirror. “You are. You are the most important person in your world. You need to treat yourself like a king or queen.”
Anna Bicknase, one of Cunningham’s colleagues, paused after telling this story.
“He could make a kid believe they could do anything.”
Cunningham was a father of five, a devoted educator, a former CU Buffs star and an NFL defensive back. On Sunday, he was killed in a high school parking lot after a dispute with a neighbor over parking.
The neighbor, 31-year-old Marcus Johnson, has been charged with first-degree murder in the slaying.
Former teammates and coaches and current students and faculty are left to mourn the sudden death of an irreplaceable community member, a man who lit up every room he entered with smile as wide as his impact. They will gather at 1 p.m. Monday at the Heritage Christian Center in Aurora for a memorial service.
A “love for life”
Before entering a career in education, Cunningham played an integral role on some of CU’s most accomplished football teams in the early 1990s, a group that made its home in the Top 25 poll under the guidance of future NFL quarterback Kordell Stewart and Heisman Trophy winning running back Rashaan Salaam.
Former teammates recall Cunningham - a wide receiver and defensive back - as a ferocious player between the lines, a man with limitless energy.
“When he brought it, he brought it,” former teammate Marcus Washington said. “He was the Energizer bunny out there. He always seemed to being going 100 mph.”
The man who recruited him, Gary Barnett, called Cunningham “one of my all-time favorite kids.”
But it was his attitude off the field that endeared Cunningham to his teammates from day one.
“It’s like he never had a bad day,” Washington said. “There are certain people like that; no matter the circumstance - a bad play or bad day in school - he always saw the positive in any situation.”
“His outgoing personality was contagious,” former teammate Derek West said. “He always had a smile on his face.”
The smile: It’s the first thing anyone brings up when Cunningham’s name is mentioned.
“My lasting memory of T.J. was his smile,” West said. “He just had this love for life.”
“He would walk into a room and everyone would smile,” Barnett said. “His smile could just take over a room.”
Turning to education
The Seattle Seahawks selected Cunningham in the sixth round of the 1996 NFL draft, but injuries derailed the former Buff’s pro career after just nine games.
He quickly turned to his other passion: education. In 1999, he completed his bachelor’s degree in communications from CU, before receiving a master’s in special education from Metropolitan State University of Denver, according to his LinkedIn page.
Dr. Stephanie Rosch was Cunningham’s instructional coach when he started his first teaching job at Scott Carpenter Middle School in Westminster.
“He hated to be called ‘professional football player T.J. Cunningham,’” she recalled. “He always said, ‘That was such a small part of my life. It wasn’t like I was Jerry Rice.’”
Cunningham excelled at building up his students, Rosch said. One time, a student of his finally finished a math level, and Cunningham wanted to celebrate.
“He burst into the hallway and started shouting, ‘Let’s give it up for him!’” Rosch recalls. “He made all the classes around cheer for this kid.”
Cunningham sought out students who looked like they needed a boost.
“He made everyone feel like a million bucks,” she said. “Every kid he met with was always a motivational speech away from success.”
On Tuesday, two days after Cunningham was killed, Rosch decided to do an activity with her students called “Top of the world Tuesday.” Every student wrote down his or her biggest accomplishment on a Post-it note to put on the wall: a time they conquered a fear or passed a test.
“T.J. would have wanted to do something like that,” she said. “Be that inspiration to them, make them stand a little taller in class.”
In 2016, Cunningham moved to Hinkley High School for a job as freshman dean of students. He worked closely with Bicknase on the school’s restorative justice program, which empowers students to resolve their own conflicts in small groups.
“T.J.’s biggest goal was to have equitable education for all,” she said. “He wanted to stop the school-to-prison pipeline.”
He supported the African American Male Empowerment student group, “adding a sense of pride” for the school’s black students.
“He was a big advocate for changing the narrative for young black males,” she said. “That message of, ‘You get to write your own story, or someone else will write it for you.’”
Bicknase said Cunningham simply did not give up on kids. Ever.
“He’s going to show up to your house and put you in the car,” she said. “Some of these kids may or may not be alive otherwise.”
Buffs For Life
Throughout his time as an educator, Cunningham stayed connected to the Buffs community.
In particular, Cunningham became an active member of Buffs4Life, an organization started by former CU football players that provides mental health support for former athletes.
Sean Tufts, the organization’s board president, said Cunningham was what they called a team captain - someone who organized training and also served as a “trusted voice who people could talk to” if they were having issues or needed support.
“T.J. was hyper in-tune with people’s emotions,” Tufts said. “He has really strong emotional intelligence.”
Friends said that Cunningham, even with his hectic schedule of teaching and parenting five children, always made time for others.
He was there when Rosch received her son’s diagnosis for learning disabilities.
“T.J. said, ‘You’re going to buckle down and you’re gonna get him there,’” she said.
After Cunnngham’s death, the community responded.
A GoFundMe started by the family has raised over $63,000 in just three days, with people donating anywhere from $10 to $500. Buffs4Life is also accepting donations for the family on its website .
Old friends, teammates, fellow teachers and students all tried this week to make sense of his killing.
“T.J. wasn’t a person who sought out conflict,” Washington said. “More than anything, he wanted to teach us to be better people.”