He almost didn't play football. Now this Rockford East senior has a state sacks record

Matt Trowbridge
Rockford Register Star
Defenseman Tyress Cunningham-Smart poses for a portrait during practice on Tuesday, Sept. 14, 2021, at East High School in Rockford. Cunningham-Smart had 8.5 sacks in last week's game, an Illinois state record for sacks per game.

ROCKFORD — Tyress Cunningham-Smart had his heart set on basketball, a sport where East has won two of the last three NIC-10 titles.

“My cousin from Iowa said, ‘Hey, man. When are you going to start playing football?’ I was, ‘No, man, I am a basketball player. I don’t think I will ever be good for football.”

Yet that same day, he attended his first E-Rab football practice as a sophomore, where he was man-handled by East offensive lineman Jason Stroberg, honorable mention all-state last season.

“I was trash,” Cunningham-Smart recalled. “He was throwing me around. But I was excited to get roughed up. It made me better. Look at me now.

“My main thing was to outwork everybody. I got strong. I went to the weight room for hours every day, until my body shut down. I got bigger, stronger and faster.”

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Too big. Too strong. Too fast for Auburn’s offensive line last week. Cunningham-Smart finished with a state-record 8 1/2 sacks in East’s 26-8 victory.

Cunningham-Smart’s record won’t become official until East reports it to the Illinois High School Association. The previous mark was 6 1/2 by Kris Reid Jr. of Westchester St. Joseph against Chicago Leo in 2016.

Cunningham-Smart won’t be the first NIC-10 player to hold the state sack record. Hononegah’s Shane Hart held a share of the mark for 16 years after recording six sacks against Harlem in 2000.

“Shane was also a wrestler; a real hard-nosed kid,” said Hononegah coach Brian Zimmerman, who was an assistant at Hono in 2000. “He was a motivated young man. A very good athlete who worked hard at his position.”

That also describes Cunningham-Smart.

“He’s got a motor and he’s athletic as hell,” East coach Gary Griffin said. “It’s easy to be a player when you have those things going for you.”

“He gives the same hustle every play,” East linebacker/defensive back Jaden Davis said. “If someone takes a play off, you will see him running full speed from the other side of the field to make the tackle if it’s not on his side. His determination and work ethic is amazing.”

That motor helped Cunningham-Smart excel quickly. He didn’t go out for football until his sophomore season, yet was first-team all-conference as a junior.

“My motto is to always outwork everybody,” he said. “I don’t count it as work at all.”

Defensive end Tyress Cunningham-Smart runs through drills with coach Gary Griffin during practice on Tuesday, Sept. 14, 2021, at East High School in Rockford. Cunningham-Smart had 8.5 sacks in last week's game, an Illinois state record for sacks per game

It sure is work to avoid him. Auburn quarterback Oshavian Dismuke passed well enough (8-for-20 for 111 yards and a TD) when he had time to throw to give Auburn an 8-6 halftime lead. But with Cunningham-Smart in the backfield so often, Dismuke seldom had time to throw in the second half.

“It was pure havoc,” East middle linebacker D’Aireus Sago said. “That’s probably something you will never see again. I was scared for the other team.

“When he’s on the field, it’s a relief. You don’t have to worry about the quarterback because he is going to contain him the whole game.”

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Cunningham-Smart was practically sprinting toward the quarterback last Friday.

“He was getting there the shortest way possible,” coach Griffin said. “That’s what helped him. From one dot to the other dot; a straight line is the easiest way to play. That’s what he’s been doing. Their guys were blocking down; he just comes off their butt and comes down.”

Cunningham-Smart, who runs a 4.83-second 40-yard dash, said the E-Rabs holding Auburn to 60 yards rushing on 30 carries set him up to rush the passer.

“I couldn’t do it without my team,” he said. “I can’t thank them enough. They gave me good looks.

“We were stopping the run, so they didn’t have no other choice but to pass.  And when they have to pass, that gives me more leverage. I am quick off the edge. Either you are going to run from me and get hit by the other person or you are going to run from them and get hit by me.”

Defenseman Tyress Cunningham-Smart runs through drills during practice on Tuesday, Sept. 14, 2021, at East High School in Rockford. Cunningham-Smart had 8.5 sacks in last week's game, an Illinois state record for sacks per game.

Friday, they got hit — and tackled — by Cunningham-Smart. Eight times. A record 8.5 times.

Cunningham-Smart, who began the season hoping to make all-conference again and perhaps go on to play for former East linebacker Brock Spack at Illinois State, hopes that game will help him achieve his dreams.

“I studied Khalil Mack — that’s my favorite player,” said Cunningham-Smart, who wears Mack’s No. 52. “And I studied college players. My coaches at East got me right. I put in hours of practice, and ran after practice or went to the weight room after practice. I put in the work. If you ask me, I earned it.

“I basically got all-conference again off of that one game. From here on out, it’s all-state.”

Matt Trowbridge: mtrowbridge@rrstar.com; @matttrowbridge