Mentoring On and Off the Field
Cunningham gives time as adviser for children and team
By Carlos Valle, Athletics Media Relations
Ian Yates Cunningham’s parents could not have picked a more appropriate name for their son. Yates, in Scottish, is a name for a gatekeeper; someone who puts himself in the position to gain opportunities.
Cunningham’s life has been all about earning valuable experience on and off the field. A four-star recruit coming out of high school, Cunningham played in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl and then began the next stage of his life in Charlottesville. As people might imagine, being a college football player, or a college athlete for that matter, is a lot of work.
Practicing four to six hours a day, five days a week, the players then leave it all on the field every Saturday, and of course still have to worry about the demanding responsibilities of being a college student. To most people this sounds like a pretty full plate. But Cunningham wanted a lot more.
Starting at right guard for the Cavaliers, Cunningham earned his degree in psychology a semester early and is now one of five Wahoos playing on the team as a graduate student. Instead of using his new-found spare time to relax, Cunningham decided he wanted to volunteer it.
He sought out service opportunities with children where he could get involved in the community and help. Then he was introduced to the ACE program at Buford Middle School where he now serves as a mentor for a couple of students in order to develop a relationship with them and help with their school work.
“I graduated early so I had a lot of free time,” Cunningham said. “Usually I would be taking 12 to 15 sometimes 18 credits a semester so I was always bogged down with stuff to do, but now I’m only taking nine credit hours so I have a lot of free time even days when I don’t have class. So why sleep in when I can go to a local middle school and help a kid out, to be his mentor? Some of the kids that I was mentoring didn’t have a male figure in their life, so to be that person, to be somebody who they can look up to and know that they have somebody means a lot.”
Perhaps what drove Cunningham to be a mentor and serve as the male figure in these children’s lives was the fact that he had two important male figures in his own life. The first was his father and the second was late tennis legend Arthur Ashe, Cunningham’s second cousin.
“Arthur Ashe was a great man,” said Cunningham of his three-time grand slam champion cousin. “My dad was able to instill in me a lot of things that Arthur instilled in him, so he was a big mentor for my dad who then became my mentor.”
Ashe, known for his efforts to further social causes, embodied the spirit of determination and the desire to improve the community, which has no doubt touched Cunningham.
Cunningham also has been touched by the opportunities he has to brighten sick children’s lives. When he’s not spending his preparing for Virginia’s next opponent, Cunningham enjoys getting to know patients at a nearby children’s hospital.
“Why wouldn’t you?” Cunningham said. “You see a kid who’s fighting everyday with cancer, who is going through pain. You hear about it but it’s totally different when you go in and you’re seeing a child that’s helpless in a bed fighting for his or her life. That really gets to me.
“Being a football player and being able to go to a children’s hospital and see a child like that and how it can brighten up their day, brighten up their week, is unbelievable.”
After suffering an injury that required off-season back surgery, Cunningham realizes how important it is to surround one’s self with help from friends and family in times of need.
Cunningham is an example of that importance as he serves as not only the Cavaliers’ starting right guard, but also the team’s backup center. He is only a teammate’s injury away from having to step up and compete at a different position.
“I don’t mind the [situation] I am in. I couldn’t ask for anything else,” Cunningham said. “To be playing college football at a great University like this and then to be able to play multiple positions on your football team, to be able to help the team in more than one way, why not?”
Being a starter and primary backup is a great example of helping the team in more than one way, but there is yet another way in which Cunningham helps his team – he serves as a member of the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee.
“I just wanted to be an outlet if they had any concerns,” Cunningham said. “I feel that I’m pretty close to a lot of people on the team and I felt that I’m a nice enough guy and well known enough for someone to be able to contact me if they had a problem. [I want teammates] to be able to say Hey Ian, can I talk to you privately about this?’ and for me to be able to voice their concern or voice our team’s concern with the athletics administration. I just want to be a voice for our football team, for our football family.”
Cunningham finds it important to help the team off the field whether it is with a personal, academic or athletic situation. But he also strives to help out on the field, especially with the non-starters.
“Our second team is fairly young,” Cunningham said. “I help my teammates with understanding the game better. What to do on certain plays, what not to do, not just in football but in life too.”
Cunningham knows exactly what his name means and lives up to it every day.
“It means he who opens gates, he who puts himself in the position to gain more experience and opportunities. It means he who makes a difference in the world’,” Cunningham said.
Cunningham has done just that. He has gained great experience through his opportunities and made a difference in the world both on the field and off.