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 last week in Inglewood at age 71, according to the university.
For someone who made such an impact on mid-century racial progress in the sporting world, Samuel Lewis Cunningham, Jr. grew up far from the inner city turmoil that marked that era, in the (relatively) tranquil environs of Santa Barbara.
Young Sam’s childhood compadres were a composite of African, Asian, Hispanic, and European stock representing a glimpse of what America would become. It was also comparatively free of the ethnic dysfunction of the Bay Area to the north and Los Angeles in the south.
Free from the madness broadcast on the nightly news, the Cunningham clan blossomed in a small-town incubator hospitable for child rearing.
Setting the Stage
Besides Sam, Anthony, Bruce and Randall helped carry the Cunningham name into the dynastic stratosphere. But it was Sam who was the standard-bearer, a role-model who blazed the trail for those who followed. A natural athlete, his exploits in track and field (he reigned as the state champion in the shot put) attracted notice before his gridiron prowess brought him south to the fabled fields of USC.
The tradition of great ‘SC backfields had already been established well before he set foot on campus. The exploits of Mike Garrett and O.J. Simpson were fresh in the memories of the Trojan faithful, and future Hall of Fame coach John McKay, approaching his 11th year at the helm, had perfected the “power I” formation and the running game for which USC became famous.
In those days, freshmen were mandated to live in the dormitories until their second year, when presumably they were mature enough to forgo supervision and move into off-campus housing.
As an anonymous newcomer, all that distinguished young Cunningham was his amiable personality and natural athleticism.
All the jocks were lumped together in the comparatively new Marks Tower, where the newly arrived recruits mingled, among them Bruce Clark, a basketball recruit from nearby Jefferson High. Joining him was his cousin Avery, a linebacker from San Diego, and Sam’s roommate. Everyone bonded together, especially since the “frosh” had extra pair time on their hands, and regularly exercised their competitive juices on the hardwood against those who were actually on scholarship for basketball. This alternated between the mandatory weight room sessions for strength training. This done, they would batter the physically less well endowed hoopsters with the football muscles they so diligently maintained.
Sam stood out, displaying natural athleticism. He briefly competed in the decathlon that year.
During one collegiate “bull session” so common in higher learning, Bruce was engaged in good natured “smack” talking directed at Sam, when he noticed a younger kid, not a student, present. Over time, he realized the boy was staring at him intensely, like he wanted to fight him, in a manner that later would be called “mad dogging,” or “mean mugging.” He toned his verbal assault down a few notches, and later was informed that the kid giving him the evil eye was Sam’s younger brother Randall.
Randall Cunningham would later make his own mark at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV) before entering the NFL and becoming one of the first Blacks to succeed at quarterback, a position lauded for the intellectual and leadership qualities thought to be essential.
Anthony Cunningham would make his mark at linebacker with Boise State, while Bruce preceded Randall on the UNLV gridiron as a defensive back. Today, Randall’s son and daughter carry on the family’s tradition of excellence as high jumpers, Randall Jr. with USC, while Vashti Cunningham competes at the professional level with team Nike.
By his sophomore year, Sam performed well enough for selection to the special teams (players who come on to the field for kicking plays). As such, for their 1970 opener against the University of Alabama, he began the game on the bench.
A Clash of Cultures
“…it wasn’t just me who played in that football game.”
—Sam Cunningham in
an interview years later.
“Bama’s” football pedigree rivaled ‘SC’s, and the competition was on their home field. The trip into the Deep South by an integrated team (the first to compete in the whole state, the bastion of segregationist supreme, Gov. George Wallace) from the wilds of California cast an aura of foreboding over the visitors.
Several players carried knives on the flight (this was before the era of metal detectors and the accouterments of a security-crazed society), and at least one, defensive end Tody Smith, claimed to have brought a pistol.
When the dust cleared, the scoreboard told only part of the story (42–21, in favor of ‘SC). Black or White, the Trojan roster was bigger, faster, stronger than their hosts in the cradle of Dixie, and they administered a whipping before a virtually lily-White stadium (in those days “Negroes” were forbidden to purchase tickets for athletic events). All of the ‘SC touchdowns were made by Blacks, it was Sam’s 135 yards and two scores that resonated.
Fact becomes Legend becomes Myth
Folklore holds that “Bama coach “Bear” Byrant brought Cunningham into his team’s locker room after the loss, and declared “this is what a football player looks like!”
No documentation has emerged to confirm this. What is known is that Bryant and McKay were fast friends, the former making annual trips west for fun in the sun, and rounds of golf in the desert intertwined with small talk, which may have led to scheduling this landmark contest.
In the intervening years, pundits have nitpicked about the game’s significance, pointing to other, equally important efforts at leveling the playing field. As early as 1961 in a now largely forgotten incident, UCLA’s Black players (abetted by their student body) led by Kermit Alexander refused to take the field against the visiting Crimson Tide, reasoning that since ‘Bama would not support them at their home field, the southerners would not be welcome in Cali.
Then there were the 1962 Michigan State Spartans, which boasted 17 Black athletes. Many of them were refugees from the South recruited by coach Duffy Daugherty. This earned their program the moniker “the Underground Railroad.”
Bear Bryant had actually signed two African-Americans, halfback Wilbur Jackson and defensive end John Mitchell prior to the 1970 season, but they weren’t eligible until the next year, becoming the first non-Caucasians to don the crimson, cool gray and white.
For Cunningham, the accolades did not end with the Alabama game. He would win MVP honors in the 1973 Rose Bowl, and was named an All-American during his collegiate career. Moving on to the professional ranks, he enjoyed a successful nine season tenure with the New England Patriots, gaining over 5,000 yards and a Pro Bowl selection.
Yet and still, all these honorariums take a backseat to the legacy of the game.
Among those captivated by the game was an art student at Long Beach State named Larry Bruff (https://fineartamerica.com/profiles/larry-bruff/shop). Using a photo from Playboy Magazine’s Pigskin Preview as his inspiration, he executed a 1973 Rose Bowl rendition of Cunningham’s signature play: His cardinal and gold figure captured in mid-air while soaring over a scarlet and grey bastion of Ohio State defenders, replicated on the cover, courtesy of the artist.
Race remains a pervasive issue, athletically and socially, given the atmosphere so pervasive as these words are typed. Let us endure these current adversities and look beyond them to the possibilities, much like an unsung backup fullback did on a sweltering day in the Heart of Dixie.