The Washington Post
USC fullback helped spur integration with his dominance on the gridiron
Sam “Bam” Cunningham, an all-american fullback at the University of Southern California whose performance against Alabama in 1970 was credited with helping to integrate football in the South before going on to a record-setting career with the New England Patriots, died Sept. 7 at his home in Inglewood, Calif. He was 71.
The death was announced by USC, which spoke to his wife, Cine. She said the cause had yet to be determined.
As a sophomore in 1970, Mr. Cunningham was part of a predominantly Black backfield that included quarterback Jimmy Jones and running back Anthony Davis. On Sept. 12 that year, Mr. Cunningham led the Trojan squad into Birmingham against an all-white Alabama team coached by Paul “Bear” Bryant for the season’s opening game.
At 6-foot-3 and 225 pounds, Mr. Cunningham was bigger and more powerful than most running backs of the era. Against Alabama, he ran for 135 yards on 12 carries and scored two touchdowns in the Trojans’ 42-21 rout in the season’s opening game.
That afternoon became part of legend and, though often embellished in the retelling, served as a crucial moment for a sport that had, in some parts of the country, clung stubbornly to segregation
Jerry Claiborne, a former Bryant assistant, famously said, “Sam Cunningham did more to integrate Alabama in 60 minutes than Martin Luther King did in 20 years.”
In truth, Crimson Tide coach Bryant did not schedule USC in hopes of losing and quieting the segregationists, as has often been said. Nor did USC’S victory cause Alabama to recruit its first Black player; the team already had a Black freshman, but freshmen were ineligible to play on the varsity at that time.
But that Saturday afternoon deserves credit. Mr. Cunningham’s performance was credited with having influenced the university and Bryant to recruit more Black players and fully integrate the sport in the South.
“Sam Cunningham did more to integrate Alabama in 60 minutes than Martin Luther King did in 20 years.” Jerry Claiborne, a former assistant to Alabama coach Paul “Bear” Bryant
“What they saw was the future,” Mr. Cunningham told ESPN in 2016. “Their team was eventually going to be integrated.”
Mr. Cunningham earned allAmerican honors in 1972, when he captained the Trojans to a national championship. His record four goal-line TD dives against Ohio State in the 1973 Rose Bowl earned him game MVP honors.
He ran for 1,579 yards and 23 touchdowns in his collegiate career, including 13 touchdowns in 1972. He was inducted into the Rose Bowl Hall of Fame in 1992 and the College Football Hall of Fame in 2010.
Samuel Lewis Cunningham Jr. was born Aug. 15, 1950, in Santa Barbara, Calif.
After his college career, he was the No. 11 selection in the first round of the 1973 NFL draft by the Patriots. In nine seasons in the NFL, he ran for 5,453 yards — and is still the New England franchise leader in rushing.
He also caught 210 passes for 1,905 yards and scored 49 touchdowns — 43 on the ground. He ran for a career-high 1,015 yards in 1977 during a 14-game season. (The NFL began to play a 16-game season the next year.)
Mr. Cunningham was a Pro Bowl selection in 1978, when the Patriots set an NFL record for rushing yards as a team with 3,165. The mark stood until 2019, when it was broken by the Baltimore Ravens.
After his playing career, Mr. Cunningham worked as a landscape contractor in California.
In addition to his wife, survivors include a daughter and three brothers. One of his brothers, Randall Cunningham, played 16 years as a quarterback in the NFL.
In his later years, Mr. Cunningham dismissed any talk of him and his team as heroes.
“I didn’t do anything more than what I was asked to do,” he said. “Run the ball. If there’s a hole, run through it. If you can score a touchdown, score a touchdown. Bam. Pretty simple to me.”