Sam ‘Bam’ Cunningham, an All-American fullback at USC and College Football Hall of Famer who went on to become the New England Patriots’ franchise leader in rushing, died this week in Inglewood at age 71, according to the university.
A cause of death was not immediately announced.
Cunningham helped lead the Trojans to a 1972 national championship, capping his All-America season. He scored four touchdowns in the 1973 Rose Bowl, earning him MVP honors.
Cunningham was known for brute strength in bursting through the defensive line, an also for his “over-the-top” touchdown scores. Cunningham is also credited with helping spark the integration of college football in the Deep South, thanks to his eye-catching, two-touchdown performance against the University of Alabama in Birmingham in 1970.
He was inducted into the USC Athletic Hall of Fame in 2001 and the College Football Hall of Fame in 2010.
“Extremely saddened by the loss of a college football legend,’’ USC head coach Clay Helton wrote on Twitter Tuesday. “As good a man as he was a player. Thank you Sam for being the example of what a Trojan should be. You will be missed but never forgotten.’’
Former Trojan quarterback Matt Leinart also paid tribute, calling Cunningham “one of the all timers.’’
“Not just a great football player but an incredible man,’’ Leinart wrote. “Really had a huge influence on my team at USC. Loved when I got to see him. RIP to a legend.’’
Cunningham was the 11th overall draft pick in 1973, chosen by the New England Patriots. He played nine season for the team, amassing a franchise-leading 5,453 yards and scoring 49 touchdowns, earning a spot on the AFC Pro Bowl team in 1978. The team inducted him into its Hall of Fame in 2010.
Cunningham “was one of my favorite players throughout the 70s and my sons all loved him,’’ Patriots chairman/CEO Robert Kraft said in a statement Tuesday. “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.
“As much as I admired him as a player, my affection for him only grew after spending time with him and learning more about him as a person. He made a tremendous impact, both on and off the field, and was beloved by his teammates.’’
Cunningham is survived by his wife, Cine; daughter, Samahndi; and brothers Randall, Bruce and Anthony. Randall Cunningham was also an NFL standout, primarily with the Philadelphia Eagles but also with the Vikings, Cowboys and Ravens.