Sam Cunningham, who starred at USC and in NFL, dies at 71

Sep 7, 2021, 2:48 AM | Updated: 3:52 pm

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Sam “Bam” Cunningham, an All-American fullback at Southern California whose performance against Alabama was credited with helping to integrate football in the South and who went on to a record-setting career with the New England Patriots, died Tuesday. He was 71.

He died at his home in Inglewood, according to USC, which spoke to his wife, Cine. She said the cause had yet to be determined.

Cunningham’s younger brother, Randall, starred as a quarterback in the NFL for 16 years.

As a sophomore in 1970 under coach John McKay, Cunningham was part of USC’s all-Black backfield, along with quarterback Jimmy Jones and running back Clarence Davis, which was the first of its kind in Division I.

Cunningham ran for 135 yards on 12 carries and scored two touchdowns in the Trojans’ 42-21 rout of predominantly white Alabama at Legion Field in Birmingham to open that season. His performance was credited with having influenced the university and coach Bear Bryant to widely recruit more Black players and accelerate the integration of the sport in the South.

“What they saw was the future,” Cunningham told ESPN in 2016. “Their team was eventually going to be integrated.”

In 1971, Alabama had Black players on scholarship for the first time and played for the national title. The decade became a standout era for Bryant and the Crimson Tide as they went on to win to more national championships.

Jerry Claiborne, a former Bryant assistant, famously said, “Sam Cunningham did more to integrate Alabama in 60 minutes than Martin Luther King did in 20 years.”

Cunningham earned All-American honors in 1972, when he captained the Trojans to a national championship. His record four goal-line TD dives against Ohio State in the 1973 Rose Bowl earned him game MVP honors. He was inducted into the Rose Bowl Hall of Fame in 1992.

He ran for 1,579 yards and 23 touchdowns in his career, including 13 TDs in 1972.

Cunningham was taken 11th overall in the first round of the 1973 NFL draft by the Patriots. He became the franchise’s career leading rusher with 5,453 yards over nine seasons, while also catching 210 passes for 1,905 yards. He scored 49 touchdowns — 43 on the ground.

He was a Pro Bowl selection in 1978, when the Patriots set an NFL record for rushing yards as a team with 3,165. The mark stood until 2019, when it was broken by the Baltimore Ravens.

“Sam ‘Bam’ Cunningham was one of my favorite players throughout the ’70s and my sons all loved him,” said Patriots chairman and CEO Robert Kraft, who bought the team in 1994. “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 was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2010, the same year he went into the Patriots Hall of Fame. He also was a member of the USC Athletic Hall of Fame.

After his playing career, Cunningham worked as a landscape contractor in California. He was born and raised in Santa Barbara.

Besides his wife, he is survived by daughter Samahndi, brothers Randall, Bruce and Anthony, niece Vashti Cunningham, a world champion high jumper, and nephew Randall II.

___

More AP college football: https://apnews.com/hub/college-football and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

AP

Charlotte Hornets' LaMelo Ball, right, looks to pass as Chicago Bulls' Ayo Dosunmu defends during t...
Associated Press

Dosunmu, White lead way as Bulls beat Hornets 114-98

CHICAGO (AP) — Ayo Dosunmu matched a season high with 22 points, Coby White scored 20 points and the Chicago Bulls overcame shaky outings by DeMar DeRozan and Zach LaVine to beat the Charlotte Hornets 114-98 on Thursday night. Dosunmu made 9 of 10 shots, and White hit three 3-pointers. Nikola Vucevic added 17 points […]
20 hours ago
Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic, left, looks for room against New Orleans Pelicans forward Herbe...
Associated Press

Mavs star Doncic injures heel on fall, out against Pelicans

DALLAS (AP) — Dallas Mavericks star Luka Doncic has been ruled out of a game against New Orleans after exiting in the third quarter with a right heel injury. Doncic stayed in the game after taking a hard fall Thursday night when he was winding up for a one-handed dunk on a drive and Brandon […]
20 hours ago
Cleveland Cavaliers forward Evan Mobley plays against Memphis Grizzlies forward Santi Aldama (7) du...
Associated Press

Garland scores 32 points, Cavaliers beat Grizzlies 128-113

CLEVELAND (AP) — Darius Garland scored 32 points shortly after being left off the All-Star team and carried Cleveland following Donovan Mitchell’s ejection, leading the Cavaliers to a 128-113 victory over the slumping Memphis Grizzlies on Thursday night. Garland was one of several players having All-Star-caliber seasons not named an Eastern Conference reserve by the […]
20 hours ago
New York Knicks' RJ Barrett, left, defends Miami Heat's Jimmy Butler during the first half of an NB...
Associated Press

Barrett scores 30, helps Knicks hold off Heat 106-104

NEW YORK (AP) — RJ Barrett rebounded from a late-game benching with 30 points, Isaiah Hartenstein made big plays on both ends of the floor in the final minute and the New York Knicks beat the Miami Heat 106-104 on Thursday night. New York pulled out the victory after Erik Spoelstra correctly challenged a call […]
20 hours ago
Indiana Pacers guard Andrew Nembhard (2) drives on Los Angeles Lakers guard Dennis Schroder (17) du...
Associated Press

James closes in on scoring record, Lakers rally past Pacers

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — LeBron James just put his head down and repeatedly drove to the basket Thursday night. It was his vintage move. The same late-game philosophy that led to four NBA championships and has him on the precipice of becoming the NBA’s new career scoring champ worked perfectly again at Indiana. James finished with […]
20 hours ago
Cleveland Cavaliers guard Donovan Mitchell, right, shoots against Memphis Grizzlies forward Dillon ...
Associated Press

Cavs All-Star Mitchell ejected after tussle with Grizzlies

CLEVELAND (AP) — Cleveland Cavaliers All-Star guard Donovan Mitchell was ejected in the third quarter Thursday night against Memphis for throwing the ball at Grizzlies guard Dillon Brooks after the players tangled under the basket. Brooks was called for a flagrant-2 foul and was also tossed following the fracas with 5:48 left and the Cavs […]
20 hours ago
Sam Cunningham, who starred at USC and in NFL, dies at 71