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Phil Cunningham speaks at Buckhannon-Upshur High School. (My Buckhannon photo by Monica Zalaznik)

Double amputee Phil Cunningham delivers inspiring message of perseverance to Buccaneer athletes

BUCKHANNON – Coach Phil Cunningham encouraged Buckhannon-Upshur High School students to never give up during a speech last week in which he shared his inspiring personal life story.

A former track coach at Liberty High School — as well as a football player and decathlon athlete — Cunningham talked about his experiences after becoming a double amputee during the Dec. 20 event.

“I want you to know this talk I’m going to give is not about me, it’s about you, it’s about your future, it’s about what you can accomplish in life,” Cunningham said. “People always say, ‘Oh, I’m a product of my circumstance.’ No, you’re a product of your decisions. It would be very easy for me not to get up in the morning, not take a shower. I’m just like anybody else — I put my legs on one at a time, like anybody else.”

He said everyone has their own struggles, no matter how big or small.

“When you guys put your shoes and socks on, it takes you 30 seconds,” Cunningham said. “It takes me five minutes to get my legs on. I don’t want your sympathy, I don’t want your pity — I want your understanding. Life is not a bowl of cherries, folks, there is always something that you have to deal with.”

He recalled the day he went to the hospital and a doctor said they would have to remove his foot.

“I called my girlfriend and future wife, and I said come down to my house, something is wrong with this foot,” Cunningham recalled. “She came down I said I was freezing. She looked at my foot and she said we better get you to the hospital, so she dropped me off. Later, I’m sitting in one of the rooms and I hear, ‘We’re prepping the OR for Phil Cunningham.’ The doctor comes in, he looks at me, and I said give it to me straight. He said, we either take this off or you will be dead in 24 hours.”

Cunningham said his girlfriend was so upset, she started to cry.

“I asked her what she was upset about,” Cunningham said, once again looking for the positive. “I said I’ll never stand in line to get into Disneyland again. I get to go to Kennywood Park for free, in the front. They give my daughter and me a pass, it’s wonderful. There are perks — not many, but there are perks. Once again, it’s your attitude.”

When his first foot was amputated, he was a track coach at Liberty High School.

“This happened on the 13th of March,” Cunnigham said. “I went back to coaching in 21 days. I was in a wheelchair.”

A year later, Cunningham got more bad news.

“The next year, you can’t make this up, on March 1, my right foot was red,” he recalled. “I said, ‘This is not happening again.’ My girlfriend came down, and I said, ‘Let’s go to the hospital.’ So we go, the doctor comes in and I said, ‘Okay, when are you going to take this thing off?’ The doctor said, ‘Oh no, you’ll be fine.’ I knew this process, and guess what? He took my right one.”

Cunnigham said it took him 17 days to return to coaching after losing his second foot due to the fast-moving infection.

“God Almighty got me through this — my attitude helped, but God Almighty got me through this,” Cunningham said. “We had to adapt, improvise and overcome, but it’s no big deal, nothing’s a big deal. Go out there, work hard, and believe in yourself. I know you want to be the best in the world, in the U.S. and West Virginia, but how about being the best you can be?”

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