By George Bremer
The Herald Bulletin
ANDERSON, Ind. — Justice Cunningham took a lingering look around Lucas Oil Stadium early Sunday afternoon and briefly wondered what he'd gotten himself into.
The Indianapolis Colts announced 66,181 tickets were distributed for the preseason opener against the Buffalo Bills, and as the players came out to warm up just before the 1:30 p.m. kickoff Cunningham was soaking in the sights.
He'd seen plenty of big crowds before as a member of college football's most prestigious league, the Southeastern Conference, during his days at South Carolina. But he still allowed the enormity of the NFL to wash over him for just a moment.
By the time the music started playing over the public address system, the rookie tight end had relaxed. What was coming next was just football, and he was back in his element.
But the day held one final surprise.
When the Indianapolis offense took possession after the opening kickoff, Cunningham was sent into the huddle with the starters for the first play from scrimmage.
"I was kind of caught off guard because we had another play set up (that did not call for two tight ends)," he said following Wednesday's morning walkthrough at Anderson University. "But when they called it, it was a play that we've run 100 times. So it came to me easily."
Cunningham's start Sunday came as a result of a foot injury to second-year tight end Dwayne Allen. He ended up playing in spurts throughout the game and even made a bit of history.
His 17-yard reception from third-string quarterback Chandler Harnish is believed to be the first completion from one "Mr. Irrelevant" — the moniker handed to the final selection each year in the NFL draft — to another.
Harnish was the final pick by the Colts in 2012, and Cunningham was the team's last selection in April. During their brief time together, the two players already have formed a common bond.
"We both, when we see each other in the game, give each other an extra look," Cunningham said. "I try to work a bit harder to get open for him. He tries to look my way a little bit more. We like each other."
Indianapolis fans seem to be warming to Cunningham, too. Which is good because they're likely to see a lot more from him.
In addition to Allen, second-year tight end Coby Fleener also missed Tuesday's practice after suffering a concussion during Sunday's loss. That left Cunningham and Dominique Jones to take the tight end snaps for a day.
Fleener returned to the practice field Wednesday after clearing part of the league's concussion protocols, but he still has more tests to pass before being cleared to play this weekend against the New York Giants.
The potential absence of both starting tight ends quickly has increased Cunningham's importance to the roster. But it hasn't changed much about the way Indianapolis goes about practice.
"They're kind of picking everything up as if it never happened," Cunningham said of the coaches and his teammates. "Me and DJ are probably out there a lot more than we're used to being out there. They're acting as if nothing happened. Picking it up and just moving right along."
That's fine with Cunningham.
He came into the league with a reputation as a fierce blocker with limitations in the passing game. But, as his catch against the Bills shows, that part of his game is evolving.
Cunningham made as much improvement as any player from the spring offseason training activities to the start of training camp. And he's not about to allow the change in his role to alter his perspective.
"I feel like this is a chance just for me to improve," he said. "While (Allen's) out right now, I'm getting more reps and I've got to make the most of them. Just show what I can do."