Friends and Loved Ones Mourn Former CU Football Player T.J. Cunningham

T.J. Cunningham once played defensive back for the Buffs.
T.J. Cunningham once played defensive back for the Buffs. Courtesy of University of Colorado Athletics
Anthony "T.J." Cunningham's students, friends and family are mourning the loss of the former CU Boulder football player and assistant principal at an Aurora high school who died on February 18 after being shot by a neighbor in a dispute over a parking spot.

On the morning of February 17, Cunningham, 46, met his neighbor, 31-year-old Marcus Johnson, in the parking lot of Eaglecrest High School in Arapahoe County to settle an ongoing dispute over a parking spot. A man who accompanied Cunningham to the meet-up said that Johnson and Cunningham came to "box it out." The two were cursing at each other, according to the witness. Johnson told Arapahoe County sheriff's deputies that Cunningham was holding a bottle. Not long after meeting, Johnson shot Cunningham three times, hitting him in the face and the chest.

Cunningham, who played one season in the NFL for the Seattle Seahawks, was transported to a nearby hospital, where he died a day later. Johnson called 911 not long after the shooting to let law enforcement officers know that he had shot Cunningham. He's been charged with first-degree murder.

Following Cunningham's tragic death, those who knew him have been reminiscing about the caring father, loving husband and educator who helped kids through high school.

"He just was so passionate about education, working with young people, and providing an opportunity for young men of color who came from the neighborhoods we grew up in," says Denver City Councilman Albus Brooks.

Even after finishing his football career at CU, Cunningham returned to campus to mentor players like Brooks, who played for the Buffs in the late ’90s.

"It's just devastating to see him pass away at the height of him feeling his purpose," says Brooks.

For the past three years, Cunningham had worked at Hinkley High School in Aurora, where he became an assistant principal at the start of this school year. According to students and colleagues, his impact there was huge.

"He had this contagious, positive energy that carried this building," says Anna Bicknase, the restorative justice coordinator at Hinkley.

Cunningham often related to at-risk students by sharing his own experiences struggling as a child growing up in Aurora, where he starred on the football team at Overland High School. "He literally saved lives. There’s kids that would be out on the street who are alive and thriving in school because of his impact," Bicknase says.

“A lot of the kids who were acting up were minority kids who had family issues at home,” says Eyni Ali, a student who worked with Bicknase and Cunningham on restorative justice until she graduated from Hinkley in 2018. “He would treat them individually and was very real and authentic with them. He was really a dad figure for them.”

Cunningham leaves behind five children and his wife, Kristi.

Aside from offering words of support to Cunningham's family, friends and former teammates are also making sure the family is able to cope financially; a GoFundMe page has raised close to $50,000 in less than 24 hours.

Scores of individuals posted comments on the page, praising Cunningham. One commenter referred to him as "a trailblazer on and off the field," while another called him "one of the nicest guys I’ve ever known."

Chris Kendrick, a neighbor of Cunningham's for the past six years, wrote a particularly poignant note.

"TJ was a shining light in this world that was so quickly snuffed out by evil much too soon. Words simply can’t describe the pain I feel, but I know it pales in comparison to the pain felt by his family today and forever. I only wish I could give more today. TJ’s smile will always remain with me and I wish him peace."
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Conor McCormick-Cavanagh is a staff writer at Westword, where he covers a range of beats, including local politics, immigration and homelessness. He previously worked as a journalist in Tunisia and loves to talk New York sports.