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After an NFL lifetime, Gunther Cunningham, 70, ready for new gig

Gunther Cunningham won't be with a football team for the first time in 48 years this season, and he expects it will hit him "maybe as the season starts." AP Photo/Carlos Osorio

The decision came outside a Bloomfield Hills Best Buy. Gunther Cunningham went to purchase a new computer -- one with more power -- and on the drive, he came to his decision. After almost a half-century with the title of "coach" next to his name in some way, he was walking away.

Cunningham initially debated it three years ago after he transitioned from defensive coordinator to senior coaching assistant with the Detroit Lions. Around that time, he talked with Pro Football Focus (PFF) founder Neil Hornsby about hiring him. The money -- and a full-time role -- wasn’t available then.

The toll coaching takes on a body -- he hasn’t had a left ACL for decades and still has ligament injuries in both shoulders -- helped push him from the field. He’d spent his life with teams, from Oregon in college to a multitude of college and NFL teams. Jobs as head coach of the Kansas City Chiefs for two years, as defensive coordinator with the Raiders, Chiefs and Lions, and as an assistant head coach in Tennessee are among his many stops. So he wasn’t ready three years ago.

In that time, he dove further into advanced analytics -- something he discovered early in his Lions tenure thanks to then-staff counsel Jon Dykema, who introduced him to PFF. Always believing himself to be a coach on the cusp of innovation, he was an early analytics adopter and recently pushed for the Lions to add virtual reality to game preparation, which he said the team did not agree to.

That created a relationship with Hornsby that turned into a close friendship and now, a partnership as PFF's new director of football oversight. But what makes a man at age 70 take on something new? What makes him leave the part of his life that he knew for so long to head to something familiar yet unknown?

"I kept working and working and trying to do as good a job as I could, but I felt that [the Lions] had hired a bunch of people and set up a system and that my value wasn’t what I wanted it to be, although there was tremendous respect from Bob Quinn and Jim Caldwell and all of them," Cunningham told ESPN. "But I wasn’t very satisfied with it. So I was looking to do something. I wanted more of a challenge."

The timing worked. PFF was in the midst of shifting its staff to hire more coaches with NFL experience to help with the overall process. Cunningham, who has a deep understanding of advanced analytics, was the right fit.

When he made his decision, Cunningham initially thought he might leave to write a memoir. It’s been an interesting first seven decades. Born miles from the Dachau concentration camp in Germany in 1946, he moved to the United States as a 10-year-old, found football and spent his entire life with the game. He became a United States citizen in 2010. His life, though, has been rooted in hard football work.

The book would wait. Going into the Bloomfield Hills Best Buy, his favorite store -- a place he feels so at home in he likens it to being Norm from "Cheers" when he walks in -- would also wait. Instead, he spent time on the phone in the parking lot with Hornsby, excited about his new adventure.

"At the time, I wanted it to come together quicker than it did, sort of, 'yeah, let’s do this,'" Hornsby said. "But things take a little bit of time."

It took three weeks.

The change left Cunningham in a period of transition. He thought he might work from his home. That was vetoed by his family. He already spends a lot of time in his basement, working out daily in his gym and logging hours in the space his wife once suggested looked like a shrine to late Chiefs linebacker Derrick Thomas.

Cunningham found office space in the Andover Building in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, where he’ll work when he’s not traveling to Cincinnati. This sent him back to Best Buy for equipment when he starts April 10, including a new computer.

"Doing this office, I’m carrying televisions, bookshelves -- big ones -- like 100 pounds upstairs," Cunningham said. "I certainly don’t feel like I’m 70. My attitude is that I can bite the head off a bear, probably.

"So, yeah, I think a lot of life is like that."

Instead of fading into the anonymity of an NFL front office, he’s in the forefront again. This has re-energized him. His official title, director of football oversight, is nebulous. He’ll still be doing what he loves: analyzing numbers and trends to put in scouting reports for the 27 NFL teams that pay for PFF. He’ll evaluate players for the draft. He’ll also likely be responsible for part of the scouting report PFF gives to NBC for "Sunday Night Football" and Cris Collinsworth, one of the owners of PFF and a "Sunday Night Football" analyst.

Cunningham will instruct PFF's analysts on how to improve the grading process -- one Hornsby explains is only an on-field performance metric. He’ll be a layer of oversight for those grades and for the coaches' PFF outsources from the Pro Coach Network to aid in the grading process.

Cunningham will travel as PFF tries to sell its product to more colleges, explaining how he used the service and its benefits. At a coach, it was a baseline and time-saver for him and the Lions when they researched and prepped for the week.

Even though Hornsby and Cunningham don’t believe it’s necessary within football, Cunningham’s name, experience and pedigree also adds another layer of credibility with the public.

"From the outside-world standpoint, when consumers, when people go to our website, when players see our grades, you know, some love them because they are ranked high," Collinsworth said. "Some aren’t so crazy about them because they are ranked low. But when you’re going, Gunther Cunningham is the one that’s overseeing the defensive operation, it’s hard to say 'you guys don’t know what you’re talking about.' There’s a little bit about that."

The biggest difference for Cunningham is for the first time since he entered football, his success or failure in football won’t be tied to whether his team wins or loses. His success will be determined by his own work ethic, data analysis and management.

He’ll still root for teams he worked and played for, because you can’t teach a septuagenarian to completely abandon what he’s always been doing. The hours will be similar, too, because that’s how Cunningham is.

But the stress will be less, for him and his family. He recognizes that it hasn’t hit him yet that he won’t be with a football team for the first time in 48 years this season.

"It might, maybe as the season starts," Cunningham said. "But winning in the NFL is so tough that I don’t know how much I’ll miss it. I know my son said, 'Thank God the pressure is off.' He got sick during the weekends worrying about the team I was with winning and losing. That’s tough to hear.

"Now that he’s all excited about me taking this next step, that makes me feel good."

Cunningham doesn’t ever see himself fully retiring. A decade ago, the man who always wears all-black Nike figured he would coach until he died. The "monster about work ethic and hours and days" is all he’s known.

This is a bridge. He believes his input will have greater impact at PFF, and he doesn’t have to lock himself in his office to do work as he sometimes did with the Lions over the past three years after moving away from the field to avoid the perception of looking over the new coaching staff's shoulder.

Most of all, this keeps him involved in a game he believes gave him his life. Cunningham might no longer be with a team, but the kid from Germany who used football to find his way still thinks he’ll be just as involved as he ever was.

"I’m an NFLer for life -- that’s the best way I can say it. Until they put me in the ground, I’ll still be a part of the NFL," Cunningham said. "I’ll never be separated from that life, and I think PFF was the closest thing that I could find that would keep me involved in the NFL.

"I think -- you kind of asked me at the beginning of this -- and that’s the best way I could describe what I did and why I did it. I’m still a part of it."