In his own way, Sam “Bam’’ Cunningham had the kind of impact on college football that Jackie Robinson had on baseball.
When Robinson integrated baseball in 1947, other sports were slow to follow the lead. Eventually, the NBA had Sweetwater Clifton, Earl Lloyd and Chuck Cooper, the NHL had Willie O’Ree, and the NFL had Tank Younger, Kenny Washington and Deacon Dan Towler. College football had a sprinkling of blacks over the years but no one with the kind of impact those other players did.
And then, along came Bam.
The University of Southern California recruited Cunningham in 1969 and a year later, with the team traveling to Birmingham, Ala., for a game against Bear Bryant’s all-white University of Alabama, coach John McKay added him to the backfield. USC already had two other Black starters, quarterback Jimmy Jones and tailback Clarence Davis.
Cunningham was supposed to be a backup but he busted out that day, running for 135 yards and two touchdowns in a 42-21 USC victory.
The message was clear to Bear Bryant. He would need to add players of color if he wanted Alabama to remain competitive. A year later, running back Wilbur Jackson and defensive end John Mitchell integrated Alabama and a Crimson Tide team that had gone 6-5-1 the year before went 11-1, including a win over USC. Alabama’s only loss that year came against Nebraska in the Orange Bowl. The Crimson Tide football team was all-white no more.
Bam Cunningham played three seasons at USC and gained 1,579 yards on 337 carries, In the 1973 Rose Bowl, he scored a record four touchdowns as USC trounced Ohio State 42-17 to complete a 12-0 season and clinch college football’s national championship.
That year, the New England Patriots selected Cunningham with the 11th pick in the NFL draft. He set a Patriots rookie record, rushing for 516 yards in his first season. When he rushed for 1,015 yards in 1977, he became just the second 1,000-yard rusher in Patriots club history.
Cunningham played nine seasons in New England and finished his career with 5,453 rushing yards and 210 receptions for 1,905 yards. He scored 49 touchdowns and was elected to the Patriots Hall of Fame and the College Football Hall of Fame on 2010. He was in Bear Bryant’s Hall of Fame long before that.
Sam Cunningham died last week at the age of 71.