This article was published on 28 February, 2018
Sport has always been a family affair for Melbourne AFLW player, and basketballer, Tegan Cunningham.
Growing up as one of four children, she had plenty of influences on her young sporting life. And with an older sister that played basketball, it was only natural for Tegan to follow suit and start shooting hoops herself.
It’s a good thing she did, too. Junior basketball in Bulleen led to a college career in the United States, first at a junior college in Liberal, Kansas, and then with Division I school Oklahoma State University.
From there came a professional career in the WNBL that wound its way around Australia; from Adelaide, to Dandenong, then to Queensland and finally back to Melbourne last year.
Now retired from basketball, she’s in the process of a new sporting career as an AFLW player with Melbourne. And once again, it’s the family touch that started it all.
“I had an older brother, so kicking the footy growing up was one of those things that you had to do,” Cunningham told AFLPlayers.com.au.
“He was stuck in a household with four girls, so I think he made me the little brother and made me kick the ball back to him.”
Cunningham recognises now that those were her first football training sessions, with the backyard as her footy field and a bored older brother her coach.
“I’m lucky I had him, and that I know how to kick a ball and all the fundamentals of how to play,” she explained.
Watching the inaugural AFLW season, Cunningham says she wasn’t immediately sure that it was an option for her.
The former basketballer watched the first season last year and it piqued her interest.
At the time, she was at a crossroads in her basketball career, despite still having the drive to compete and challenge herself.
“I knew I could continue to play — I probably wouldn’t be one of the better girls any more — and I’m getting a little bit older,” she said. “And then I was watching the football and some of the basketball girls just fit in.”
After that, things just fell into place. A basketball game against now-teammates Brooke Patterson and Lauren Pierce led to a conversation with Melbourne list manager Todd Patterson.
Following that, the Demons drafted Cunningham with their third pick in the draft, the 22nd selection overall. And while it’s clear that they have high hopes for her, the 30-year-old is just looking to contribute and enjoy the journey.
With such a wealth of elite sporting experience under her belt, Cunningham was keen to provide some guidance to her younger teammates, and has spent the last few months since joining the club doing so.
“A lot of these girls probably feel a lot of pressure because footy’s all they know, and I was the same in basketball because when I grew up it’s all I did.”
Away from the cut and thrust of the sporting field, basketball was still close to Cunningham’s heart. She has held roles held roles in game development within Basketball Victoria and Basketball Australia since returning to the country.
But it’s clear the most drastic change in the Demon forward’s life has been her rapid development as a footballer. While it was that natural athleticism that caught the eye of Melbourne’s recruiters, Cunningham is no longer a one-trick pony on the field.
After a big pre-season on the training track, her skills with the ball have surprised even herself, with the forward kicking five goals in the first four games of the 2018 AFLW season.
“I knew I could do the basics, but where I am now compared to when I entered the club is a complete change,” Cunningham said.
“People will put it all down to points, goals, marks, possessions, and that’s all crucial don’t get me wrong, but if you’re not helping your team then you’re not bringing anything.”
With that mindset and a lifetime of sporting success already in the books, it’s hard to see Cunningham failing to make an impact on the AFLW.
The ‘Triple Threat’ series is an initiative of the partnership between the AFL Players’ Association and La Trobe University. Stay tuned as La Trobe sports journalism students help tell the stories of some of the game’s most talented athletes.