After he finished racing that night and it was time to donate items for the auction to benefit St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, veteran Supercross rider Kyle Cunningham knew just what to give.
From essentially all the pieces of plastic on his motorcycle to …
“Jersey off my back from the race,” he said with a laugh. “It was probably still sweaty.”
The riders of the Monster Energy AMA Supercross motorcycle racing series are known for their support of St. Jude, from the recent online auction to legendary rider Ryan Dungey’s friendship with St. Jude patient Gabe.
Cunningham can relate particularly well to St. Jude patients and their families, despite having no direct connection to the cause other than a desire to help. Because Cunningham, a 30-year-old Texan, understands all about struggle and adversity and overcoming. He’s a professional athlete, but it hasn’t been handed to him.
This year, there was a crash in a race, resulting in injury and missed races. Last year it was the energy-zapping Epstein-Barr virus, and more missed races. And at various points of his career, he’s been without sponsorship and race team affiliation, meaning he had to make it on his own, a scrappy independent at the highest level of his sport.
Well, not exactly on his own. There was his dad, Curtis.
“Little bit of a rollercoaster,” Cunningham said of his career. “I’ve been on teams in the past, in great programs. Then I’ve also been at points throughout years where I was racing out of the back of a pickup truck, doing it with my dad and making it happen that way.
“One of my best outdoor series, we finished seventh overall. It was pretty much on a production motorcycle with me and my dad, out of the back of the truck.”
Adversity. Struggle. Leaning on family to get through it all.
Sounds like what it’s like to have a child with cancer.
And Cunningham gets it. He knows his version of adversity is “nothing compared to what they’re dealing with” at St. Jude.
“A broken arm or Epstein-Barr, I mean — to see those kids fighting what they’re fighting, and pull through that and keep a positive attitude the whole time, it’s amazing to me,” he said.
That’s what strikes you about Cunningham and his fellow riders on the Supercross circuit — for a bunch of guys who fly through the air on motorcycles, they sure are grounded.
“It’s the sport,” said Cunningham, who is having perhaps his best professional year, competing in the sport's premier 450SX class while riding for the H.E.P. Motorsports team. “I definitely think it’s an industry that thrives on wanting to be involved with (good causes). I feel like a lot of the guys I race with and the people involved in our industry are the same way. It’s always just cool to be a part of something and help out any way we can and make a difference.”
Cunningham says the riders grow up together, competing as young amateurs. He started at age 7, on a little 50cc bike — pretty much the same story as Dungey.
“Me and Dungey grew up racing all of our amateur nationals together,” Cunningham said. “We were competitors then, all the way into the pro ranks. I think the year we all turned pro, there were about eight or nine of us who moved up at the same time.
“It’s the sport. I can remember being a little kid. I loved to go around and collect jerseys, you know, of the guys that I looked up to.”
That’s why it was so natural that Dungey bonded with St. Jude patient Gabe, who got his first bike at 6, began racing competitively at 7, and was diagnosed at 8 with medulloblastoma, a cancerous tumor of the brain. When the tumor was removed, it left him with posterior fossa syndrome (PFS), which can follow brain surgery and affect speech, language, motor skills and mood.
Gabe loves the sport, and the sport has loved him back. He and Dungey met during the latter’s tour of St. Jude. Since then, Gabe and his mom, Andrea, have attended races as Dungey’s guest. And, when Gabe took his first steps without a walker since brain surgery left him paralyzed, Dungey was by his side, at the St. Jude Walk/Run Minneapolis event.
That’s the bond Supercross and St. Jude have, and Cunningham feels grateful to be able to help carry it on. He feels “blessed,” he said, because for whatever struggles he faced in his sport, through injury and illness and the grind of the scrappy independent, he’s doing what he loves for a living.
“I love racing. I love riding my motorcycle,” he said. “I’m just thankful and fortunate I’ve been doing it for as long as I have.”
It’s why he’s happy to give anything and everything to the kids of St. Jude — the plastic off his bike, and the jersey off his back.
Sweat and all.