U.S. (gridiron) football great Sam “Bam” Cunningham, whose performance against Alabama in a 1970 game is credited for prompting major college football programs in the southern United States to integrate their teams with Black players, has died at the age of 71.
The University of Southern California, where Cunningham played his collegiate years, said he died Tuesday at his home near Los Angeles.
Cunningham was a sophomore (second-year student) running back when he rushed for 135 yards and two touchdowns to lead USC to a 42-21 rout of Alabama, one of college football’s most dominant programs both in the southern U.S. as well as nationally. His performance led Paul “Bear” Bryant, Alabama’s legendary head coach, to begin recruiting Black players to his then-predominantly White team, with other college coaches in the south doing the same.
The late Jerry Claiborne, a longtime college football coach who was one of Bryant’s assistants, said Cunningham “did more for integration in 60 minutes (the length of a football game) than Martin Luther King did in 20 years.”
Cunningham later said the game did not change how White people felt about Blacks, but that Black players “were accepted because they could help their program win football games.”
Cunningham became an All-American standout for USC during his three years on the team, capping his collegiate career by scoring four touchdowns in a 42-17 win over Ohio State in the 1973 Rose Bowl, securing the Trojans the national championship for the 1972 season.
Cunningham, who earned his nickname for his powerful head-on running style, went on to play nine seasons with the National Football League’s New England Patriots, becoming the franchise’s all-time leading runner with 5,453 yards. He helped lead the Patriots to a record-setting 3,165 single-season rushing yards in 1978, which stood until it was broken in 2019 by the Baltimore Ravens.
Patriots owner Robert Kraft praised Cunningham as a player who “made a tremendous impact, both on and off the field.”
Cunningham was elected into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2010, the same year he was inducted in the Patriots Hall of Fame. His younger brother Randall, was a standout NFL quarterback for 16 seasons.
Some information for this report came from the Associated Press and Reuters.