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Ten Minutes with Richie Cunningham

NFL pro turned pharmaceutical CEO



Photo by Stan Godlewski

Richie Cunningham spent the 1990s seesawing between the life of a pro athlete and that of a healthcare executive. So how does he end up here: an All-Pro NFL placekicker from Louisiana who is now CEO of Icagen, a North Carolina–based pharmaceutical company that specializes in early drug discovery? We sat down with Cunningham to trace the arc of his fascinating career—from the Dallas Cowboys to Boehringer Ingelheim, which brought him to Ridgefield. 

Your career has taken an unusual path. Help us connect the dots. 
I grew up in south Louisiana, and most of the kids there went into the oil or seafood industry. Sports were an escape for me. I played baseball at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, which paid for my books. And I walked onto the football team. I probably only kicked 12 field goals my entire college career.  

So how did you turn pro?
After college, I flew around to tryouts, slept in my car, put myself into debt. I got invited to camp for the Cowboys in 1994, worked my way up to number one, and then missed a couple of 52-yard kicks in preseason. So I missed the team. 

Was that a big disappointment?
That was the best thing that could have happened to me. I never wanted to forsake my career for something that was a long shot. And I had a background in marketing, so I got a job in San Diego with a medical company. My boss there—a mentor of mine—told me I shouldn’t give up on the NFL. I almost made the Packers in 1996, and then landed the starting job for the Cowboys in 1997. 

You played on a team with Troy Aikman, Emmit Smith, and Herschel Walker, but only you and Deion Sanders made All-Pro. Ever tease your teammates about that? 
Ha! No. At that point I knew I had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I knew it would be short-lived, so in the off-season I went back to California and worked full-time. 

How are things in an NFL locker room for a placekicker named Richie Cunningham? 
Personalities are different in the locker room than in front of the camera. Deion in Dallas and Reggie White in Carolina were the nicest guys. A lot of kickers keep to themselves, but when I went to the Cowboys, I wanted them to know that I worked as hard as everyone else. I would pull the sleds. I would run the scout-team quarterback. And yes, they called me Opie. 

What was the most pressure-packed kick you made in the NFL? 
My first one! It was 1997, Three River Stadium in Pittsburgh. And it was, you guessed it, a 52-yarder from the left hash. 

How did dealing with that pressure help in your business career?
Well, my whole NFL career helped me. Nothing ever comes easy in business. There is always a challenge, always stress. It comes down to who can remain composed in those situations. 

If or when the Affordable Care Act is repealed, how will that affect Icagen?
I don’t think it will impact us too much. The bottom line is that, for many people, pharmaceuticals provide the most effective way to manage care outside of healthy living. So we’re in favor of anything that increases the access to life-saving drugs.

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