United States Sports Academy master’s degree holder Byron Cunningham recently received his United States Sports Academy 2019 Alumnus of the Year award, a recognition he earned because of his work as the director of rehabilitation for the Los Angeles Rams’ award winning athletic training staff.

A native of Mobile, Ala., Cunningham earned his Master of Sports Science degree in sports medicine from the Academy in 2002. The Alumnus of the Year Award is given to the year’s most outstanding Academy graduate and the honoree must represent the ideals of sport and of the institution. Cunningham spent the previous eight seasons as a physical therapist and assistant athletic trainer for the Rams.

“The Academy was the best of both worlds for me,” Cunningham said. “I’ve always loved sports, and it was great to be able to combine that love of sports with a great education. The Academy helped me to develop skills that I use in my career every day.

“The Academy prepared me for my career because I had instructors who cared and challenged me on a daily basis, and in sports nothing comes easy because ultimately the end result is about winning,” he said. “Earning my degree from an institution that focuses only on sports was very exciting because sports are something that I have always participated in, whether as an athlete or a fan.

“It is easy to say that my greatest professional achievement is working with an NFL team because I have one of just 32 jobs, but at the same time it is humbling knowing that working in professional sports is not an easy profession to obtain,” he said. “I’m thankful every day knowing I can come to work and do a job that I’ve dreamed of doing since my time at the Academy.”

In his role, Cunningham is responsible for the care, prevention, treatment and rehabilitation of player injuries in coordination with the head athletic trainer. During his tenure with the Rams, Cunningham has overseen several critical player rehabilitation programs, including former wide receiver Brian Quick who suffered a potentially career-ending shoulder injury in 2014 and returned to the field in 2015.

The Rams training staff was named the 2015 NFL Athletic Training Staff of the Year by the Professional Football Athletic Trainers Society. Cunningham said the award was important because it is selected by other NFL athletic trainers.

Prior to joining the Rams staff, Cunningham was head athletic trainer at the University of Illinois from 2007-09, after serving the two previous years as the university’s assistant athletic trainer from 2005-07. Cunningham spent 2004-05 as the head athletic trainer at Bishop McNamara Catholic High School in Kankakee, Ill. He also interned with the Chicago Bears in 2003, Auburn University from 2001-03, and the Indianapolis Colts during the team’s 2002 training camp.

Cunningham also has experience working internationally as an assistant athletic trainer with NFL Europe’s Rhein Fire in 2004.

“Working for the NFL in Europe was a fantastic experience,” Cunningham said. “That league gave people like me the opportunity to live abroad while getting world class work experience in the field. We got to practice our craft while living and learning about another culture. It was wonderful.”

Cunningham said the best part of his job is being able to help athletes who are down return to their peak performance level.

“It is very gratifying to work with injured players,” Cunningham said. “These are some of the best athletes in the world, but when they come to me so many of them are down. They are wondering, ‘how does this injury effect my future?’ But when you are able to get these guys back on the field and performing at the highest level, that’s very rewarding.”