In a sport known for huge men, Minnesota Vikings cornerback Captain Munnerlyn stands out for his lack of size. At just 5-foot-9, he gets picked on by some of his teammates in the locker room but can easily dish it right back.
He’s been compared to Munchkins, has been told he has never seen a parade if he wasn’t in the front row and is made to feel at times like he’s the person alerting the employees on Fantasy Island of a plane’s pending arrival (look it up, young 'uns).
It’s nothing new. In normal society, being 5-9 and muscular is a positive. In an NFL locker room, it’s been a point of humorous disses – actual “locker room talk.”
“I hear it all the time,” Munnerlyn said. “It’s nothing new to me. I’ve always played football and I’ve always been one of the smaller guys on the team. It doesn’t bother me anymore.”
It did at one point, because one of the contributing reasons Munnerlyn has been one of smaller players on the numerous football teams he has played on was that he was born three months premature in Mobile, Ala.
He weighed just three pounds, eight ounces and spent the better part of his first year in the hospital.
“I needed help breathing for the first year of my life,” Munnerlyn said. “We’ve made a lot of progress in medicine since then. My mom told me that there were times when they didn’t know if I was going to make it. I had tubes in my nose that whole first year and didn’t leave the hospital for most of my first year.”
It was his own struggle that has brought Munnerlyn to be a strong supporter of the March of Dimes, whose mission statement began to treat polio and, as it was eradicated, shifted to research to help the prevention of premature babies and bringing births to full term.
A survivor of the life-threatening aspects of preemies, Munnerlyn is about as healthy as you get. But the lessons told him by his mother fostered the primary reasons he is such a staunch advocate for the March of Dimes.
He’s proof that, while terrifying for the families at the time, premature babies can live normal lives with the right early medical treatment and kids coming into the world with the deck stacked against them can live normal, healthy lives.
“Fortunately for me, when it came to most of the normal timing of things for kids – walking, talking, running around – I was right on time,” Munnerlyn said. “I was one of the lucky ones. Having gone through all that, I have a very soft spot in my heart for premature babies. My mom always told about the struggle we had my first year and that’s why I’ve worked as hard as I can to help support the March of Dimes.”
Munnerlyn has used his celebrity status to help increase awareness to the March of Dimes and the work it does, because, while he is far removed from the hospital incubators, he will never forget the early struggles he was up against and the toll it takes on families who are relying on prayer and caregivers to keep their babies alive.
“My mom said that I was so small that I could fit in a shoe box,” Munnerlyn said. “When I think about that now, I just say, ‘Wow! I am truly blessed to be where I am now.’ It shows that anything is possible. That’s my message to the parents and to the kids – we’re here for a reason, there’s nothing that can hold you back and to live your life and be great.”
As Munnerlyn struggled for his life, his mother endured the year from a different perspective – being the mother of other children who needed her, but a baby who needed her more.
As Munnerlyn grew to understand, when a child is peril, a parent’s sleep is overrated. They find ways to squeeze extra hours into the day because they don’t want to be away in the event something serious happens.
“She never wanted to leave the hospital,” Munnerlyn said. “I was her baby boy. None of the other kids in my family were premature. The heartache and the worrying about me when she had to leave the hospital and wanting to be with me 24/7, I still carry that with me. That was a heavy burden for her. Those things that she had to go through amaze me. Some people couldn’t go through that, but she was strong and look at me now.”
While Munnerlyn has excelled at his chosen professional, which requires elite health, he’s still his mom’s baby. As recently as Tuesday, when they talked on the phone, she called him what she always does – “Baby Boy” – and reminded him that her birthday is this Thursday and that a gift and a phone call from her loving son are expected.
He promised to make good on both.
Munnerlyn and his wife Lakisha have three children of their own – sons Captain and Champ and daughter Eden. All of his children were born healthy and on time, but Munnerlyn has never forgotten his rough start in life, which is why he will always have a role with the March of Dimes and will pass that charitable spirit on to his children.
“I’ve been blessed and I thank God every day for my kids,” Munnerlyn said. “But I also remember what my family went through and can feel for premature babies and their parents and what their families go through. I like to think that I can serve as an example that you can have a rough start in life and still grow up healthy, happy and strong.”
He may be one of the smallest players on the Vikings, but when it comes to heart, toughness and tenacity, Munnerlyn can stand up next to anyone in a football locker room … even if occasionally it’s on tiptoes.