When Ian Cunningham signed with the Chiefs as an undrafted rookie offensive lineman in 2008, he didn't realize that his chances of earning a roster spot were minimal. In retrospect, however, the new Bears assistant general manager concedes that there were a couple of clues.
"They gave me Jared Allen's number—he had just left to go to Minnesota—and my locker was next to Tony Gonzalez's," Cunningham recently told ChicagoBears.com. "Looking back on it, I should have known that I wasn't going to be [there] for long."
When Cunningham was waived by Kansas City before the start of the NFL season, he was just fine with hanging up his helmet and shoulder pads. Having started 31 games at Virginia—where he earned honorable mention freshman All-America honors from Rivals.com—Cunningham felt that he had maximized his opportunities on the gridiron.
It was time for the Texas native to begin another career—and he knew exactly what he wanted to do.
"I always knew that I wanted to be in personnel," Cunningham said. "I always enjoyed building a team, constructing a roster, finding the pieces of the puzzle that fit."
Cunningham immediately reached out to his coach at Virginia, Al Groh, who had spent 13 years as an NFL assistant, working with legendary coaches Bill Belichick, Bill Parcells and Nick Saban, among others.
"[Groh] was able to put me in contact with three people," Cunningham said. "The first person he put me in contact with was Ozzie Newsome."
A Hall of Fame tight end with the Browns from 1978-90, Newsome was the Ravens general manager at the time. He met with Cunningham and hired the 23-year-old as a player personnel assistant.
"I interviewed there, ended up getting the job and the rest is history," Cunningham said. "Those player personnel assistants, they liked for them to have spent time as a [graduate assistant in college] for a season or worked in recruiting. I literally just got done playing and he gave me a chance when they usually didn't do that."
While Cunningham credits Groh with teaching him how to watch film, Newsome has been as instrumental in Cunningham's success as anyone.
"The reason why I'm here is because of Ozzie," Cunningham said.
A highly successful NFL executive, Newsome taught the Bears assistant general manager how to evaluate talent—with consistency and humility. Every day after the league's waiver wire was released, Cunningham walked into Newsome's office to shift player magnets based on the transactions—and talk scouting.
"I'd go into the office of Ozzie Newsome every single night and pick his brain as I'm putting magnets up," Cunningham said. "[I'd ask], 'Who'd you watch today?' Or just having conversations and learning: 'How do you evaluate talent? What do you see in this player?' Just learning as much as you could and soaking it in.
"And not just Ozzie, but you had Eric DeCosta, you had Joe Douglas that have come out of there and they're GMs. I was fortunate enough to be brought up in that. That's where I grew, that's where I cut my teeth."
Cunningham rose up the ranks with the Ravens, serving as an area scout from 2013-16 after five seasons as a player personnel assistant. His steady climb continued over the next five years with the Eagles, from director of college scouting (2017-18) to assistant director of player personnel (2019-20) to director of player personnel (2021).
In July 2020 when he was 35 years old, Cunningham was included by The Athletic on a list of 40 individuals under the age of 40 it characterized as "the rising stars shaping the direction of the NFL."
Cunningham earned a psychology degree at Virginia in 2007 and a master's degree in education in 2008. He's convinced that studying psychology has helped him immeasurably in his NFL roles.
"I enjoy seeing what makes people tick," he said. "I think it helps me in our game now. I'm just fascinated with what makes people the way they are, what makes players the way they are, what makes them want to achieve. It's tough to put on those pads every single day, and for us, just trying to figure people out, that's half the battle. We can sit there and watch the tape, but spending time with the person and getting to know them, I've always been interested in people, and for me it was just a natural thing to study."
Joining forces with Poles
When Ryan Poles became Bears general manager Jan. 25, he hired Cunningham four days later. In an exclusive interview with ChicagoBears.com, Poles explained why he made Cunningham the first assistant GM in Bears history.
"The one thing I've learned just working with past general managers is you get pulled in so many different directions," Poles said. "That's just a part of this league. So, to have a right-hand man that can keep the evaluation process going while you're getting pulled in different directions is critical. And I trust in Ian. We have a great relationship. We have a very similar philosophy. And he's a good person overall, so he's going to be able to help bring the group together."
Asked to describe his responsibilities, Cunningham said: "Really wherever Ryan needs help I help him, whether it's with free agent meetings, draft meetings, operations, sports science, strength and conditioning. Whatever Ryan needs, I try to help."
Cunningham isn't just Poles' right-hand man figuratively speaking; it's actually quite literal. When you see one of them, the other is usually nearby. That's been true at Halas Hall, the NFL Combine in Indianapolis, recent Bulls and Blackhawks games at United Center, and even at home.
Wait, what? Yes, as Poles and Cunningham wait for their respective wives and young children to move to Chicago after the school year, the two Bears executives are living together.
"It gives us more time to spend together and get to know each other a little bit more," Cunningham said. "For me, it helps me get to know him a little bit more, where I need to help here, or where he needs to help me in certain areas, so it's been good."
Over the past several years, Poles and Cunningham would meet each other at the Combine or see each other on the road scouting college players and talk football. Now they conduct those conversations at home, at work and driving together from home to work.
"It's just kind of an extension of what we were starting throughout our careers in terms of just being able to talk ball and talk philosophy," Cunningham said. "Now we're actually doing it and we're talking real-time things."
Poles and Cunningham chat about far more than football: life in general, family, raising kids and the stresses of society are among the topics. Since joining forces with the Bears, they've discovered that they have common interests in music and food.
Their bond no doubt is rooted in their shared background as college offensive linemen—Cunningham, as previously mentioned at Virginia, and Poles at Boston College. Like Cunningham, Poles entered the NFL as an undrafted rookie in 2008—ironically with the Bears—but failed to earn a roster spot.
"Offensive linemen are selfless by nature, so there's no ego," Cunningham said. "Our team success matters to us. His success matters to me. My success matters to him. Whatever we can do to help each other succeed, that's what we want to do, and it's genuine … Working together, it's awesome. I couldn't have hoped for anything more."
Early influences in his life
While Groh and Newsome mentored him as a professional, Cunningham was shaped as a person by many, including his father, Louis, and his father's first cousin, tennis legend Arthur Ashe.
Louis worked as a sports agent whose firm represented NBA stars Michael Jordan, Patrick Ewing and Dominique Wilkins before serving as the vice president of marketing for the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta and the athletic director at Alabama A&M.
"Being able to see him and his career, I was always in the back of the office with him," Cunningham said of his father. "He'd make me sit there and listen to business conversations while I did my homework. He says I learned through osmosis, but I was very fortunate to have that upbringing. I couldn't have asked for anything more."
Louis grew up like a little brother to Ashe, the only Black man to win singles titles at Wimbledon, the U.S. Open and the Australian Open. Ashe passed away in 1993 but continues to inspire Cunningham.
"I was fairly young when he passed away," Cunningham said. "But a lot of what my dad instilled in me was instilled in him by Arthur. A lot of his messaging and just kind of how I was raised was a lot of the messages from Arthur."