Sam Cunningham, a fullback for the integrated University of Southern California football team that in 1970 trounced Coach Bear Bryant’s all-white Alabama squad, died on Tuesday at his home in Inglewood, Calif. He was 71.
His wife, Cine (Ivery) Cunningham, confirmed his death but did not cite a cause.
Cunningham, a sophomore, was playing his first game for U.S.C. on Sept. 12, 1970, at Legion Field in Birmingham. For the Trojans it was a journey into the Deep South to a state that had been governed, and would be again, by the fiery segregationist George C. Wallace.
Cunningham, whose nickname was Bam, formed an all-Black backfield with the quarterback Jimmy Jones and the tailback Clarence Davis. Cunningham, a backup player, was the game’s unexpected star, running for 135 yards on 12 carries and scoring two touchdowns in the Trojans’ 42-21 victory.
For Alabama, it was a humiliating loss on the way to a 6-5-1 record — but it was also a lesson to Bryant that his Crimson Tide would falter in the future without Black players. He knew that already, having recruited Wilbur Jackson, a running back. But as a freshman, Jackson was not allowed to play for the varsity and watched the game at the stadium.
Cunningham called the game a “tipping point” in the struggle for civil rights in sports. He told the U.S.C. athletics website in 2016 that it showed “that things should be equal on the football field as they should be in all other parts of life, but that’s not always the case.”
The next year, Jackson and John Mitchell, a defensive end, integrated the Alabama team, which went 11-1 (including a win over U.S.C.). The team’s only loss was to Nebraska in the Orange Bowl.
Richard Lapchick, a human-rights activist and the director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida, said Bryant knew he needed to recruit Black players to stay competitive.
In a phone interview, Lapchick said that Bryant had confided in Eddie Robinson, the longtime coach of the historically Black Grambling State University in Louisiana, about the impact of his team’s loss to U.S.C.
“Eddie told me how often Bear talked to him about what the game meant,” Lapchick said, “and what Sam meant to his ability to integrate.”
By 1977, Alabama had 17 Black football players on scholarship.
Samuel Lewis Cunningham Jr. was born on Aug. 15, 1950, in Santa Barbara, Calif. His father was a railroad worker. His mother, Zoe (Ivory) Cunningham, died when he was young; he was raised by his father and stepmother, Mabel (Crook) Cunningham, a nurse.
Sam and his brothers, Anthony, Bruce and Randall, a future quarterback with the Philadelphia Eagles and three other N.F.L. teams, were all athletic. Sam was introduced to organized sports in elementary school, where he played basketball, baseball, volleyball and flag football.
He was recruited by Coach John McKay to U.S.C. and, in his three seasons on the team, gained 1,579 yards on 337 carries. He scored four short-yardage touchdowns in the Trojans’ 42-17 victory over Ohio State in the 1973 Rose Bowl, which wrapped up a 12-0 season. That year’s team was ranked No. 1 in college football.
Cunningham was selected by the New England Patriots with the 11th overall pick in the 1973 N.F.L. draft. In his nine seasons with the team, he accumulated 5,453 rushing yards, including 516 in his first season, a Patriots rookie record, and 1,015 in 1977, making him the second Patriot to exceed 1,000 yards in a season. He sat out the 1980 season in a contract dispute, which prompted the Patriots to trade him to the Miami Dolphins. But he failed the team’s physical and returned to the Patriots shortly before the 1981 season.
“Sam ‘Bam’ Cunningham was one of my favorite players throughout the ’70s, and my sons all loved him,” the Patriots’ owner, Robert Kraft, said in a statement. “After I bought the team in 1994, it was my honor to welcome him back to the team on multiple occasions, recognizing him as a 50th-anniversary team member and again for his induction into the Patriots Hall of Fame.”
Cunningham became a landscape contractor after his playing career ended.
In addition to his wife, he is survived by his daughter, Samahndi Cunningham; and his brothers.
Cunningham joined Jones and Davis in the backfield early in the first quarter of that historic 1970 game against Alabama.
“I didn’t go into any game looking to change history, even though history has a tendency to be changed by things of that nature,” he told The Santa Barbara Independent this year. “I always tried to play to the best of my ability, and that’s what I did that evening. I was put in the right spot and got touched by the hand of God.”
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