We find out how former NFL rivals Michael Carter and Randall Cunningham put old allegiances aside and found a bond coaching track and field.

As a nose tackle for the San Francisco 49ers from 1984-1992, Michael Carter often shared the same American football field as Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Randall Cunningham (who played in the NFL, 1985-2001). The trouble was, according to Carter, Cunningham was a slippery customer on the gridiron.

“Just when you thought you had him, he would take off and go for the first down,” recalls Carter with a chuckle. “I hated playing him.”

At last month’s Portland World Indoor Championships the pair came together for the first time in more than 20 years. Yet, their conversations in the stands of the Oregon Convention Center were not about football, but athletics. Since hanging up their cleats, both have turned to coaching their respective daughters: shot putter Michelle Carter and high jumper Vashti Cunningham, who both happened to win their first world titles. 

Three-time Super Bowl winner Carter was not only a prodigious footballer, he also won shot put silver at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics and boasted a lifetime best of 21.76m. His daughter Michelle played football, volleyball and basketball until in her junior year at high school, when, quite out of the blue, she announced she fancied trying the shot.

“We didn't really talk about my accomplishments, so she had no clue of my shot background,” explains Carter. “Yet when she said she wanted to try shot, my wife and I looked at each other and both thought ‘do you know what you getting yourself into?’”

 

#HeTriedIt Daddy why are you ignoring me?!? #MichelleCarter #ShotDiva #CoachDaddy

A video posted by Michelle Carter (@shotdiva) on

Michelle was insistent and Michael, who had previously only coached boys, took on the challenge of coaching a female athlete for the first time. This girl also happened to be his daughter, and it was far from easy.

“With girls you have to be different,” explains Texas-based Michael. “You have to be gentle and know when to push them. I quickly realised that sport can follow you home as sometimes back home she wouldn't speak to me. We later developed a new system of not talking about track back at home and it worked out pretty well.”

Unlike Carter, Cunningham never broke out as a senior track and field performer. Nonetheless, he cleared 6ft 10ins (2.08m) in the high jump as a high schooler, and leaped close to 23ft (7.01m) in the long jump.

At first he coached his son, Randall II, a Junior Olympics high jump champion, who earlier this year cleared a lifetime best 2.26m. When his younger daughter Vashti was around nine, he realised that she had the natural attributes for the high jump, so he started to guide her as well.

A self-taught high jumper, Randall Snr made sure he embedded the basics. Then, when his daughter was around 13, he began introducing light weight training, which yielded immediate improvements. Unlike Michael and Michelle, there was no strain on the father-daughter relationship.

“The good thing is when she is ready for a workout she just walks downstairs,” says Randall, adding that he and Vashti share similar personalities. “We both get a lot of joy and fun from sport. And you might not think to look at her, but she is very competitive.”

Michael agrees that he and daughter Michelle, 30, are similarly strong-willed and driven. However, when in competitive mode they are polar opposites.

“I was very focused and very intense,” he admits. “Michelle is always smiling and very happy-go-lucky. I have tried to get her to be more intense but that doesn't work for her.

“I used to play football angry, but Michelle is the opposite. I had to learn to let Michelle be Michelle.”

In Portland, Michelle emerged as winner in a captivating final, unleashing a stunning 20.21m in the final round to seal gold in the most dramatic style.

“As her coach it was great moment,” insists Michael. “I knew she had it in her.” He adds: “To see it on the other side – as a coach – where you have this responsibility to the athlete is wonderful. It is only later you think ‘hey, that's my daughter’.”

While Carter won her first title in ten senior global championships appearances, 18-year-old Cunningham landed her world indoor gold medal on debut. “A blessing,” her father says. “I said to Vashti, ‘you are up against world champions, but the pressure is on them not you’,” Cunningham Snr adds.

There was no sign of fear as she topped out with a 1.96m. Though Ruth Beitia, Kamila Licwinko and Arine Palsyte joined her, Vashti’s unblemished record up to that point meant she finished ahead of her bar-bothering rivals. A week after landing the US title with a world U20 record 1.99m, the Las Vegas high schooler had won the world title.

Her father says the magnitude of her achievement puts his NFL record in the shade. “The difference is: Vashti is world champion,” says Randall, who is building a high jump training facility opposite his local church where Vashti can train.

“As much as I achieved in football I was pretty much the American champion, because it is not a sport played worldwide. I feel honoured as a father that God has given Vashti those genetics, a desire to train and humility. She is a great girl who loves everybody.”