Sam “Bam” Cunningham, the star USC running back whom many people praise for helping integrate college football in the early 1970s, died Tuesday at the age of 71.
Cunningham, who was enshrined in the College Football and New England Patriots halls of fame in 2010, is perhaps best known for his two-touchdown performance against the University of Alabama in 1970, when the integrated Trojans trounced the all-white Crimson Tide 42-21 in Birmingham.
The Trojans’ victory at Legion Field, a stadium located in a city known for antipathy toward African Americans and some of the darkest moments of the civil rights movement, made the achievement over legendary Alabama coach Paul “Bear” Bryant an even more heroic feat.
“I’m just proud to be a part of it, because it was such a special game,” Cunningham told the Los Angeles Times in 2016.
On Tuesday, former Alabama and NFL player Mark McMillian thanked Cunningham for “opening the door for players like myself to play in the south & at Alabama.”
“Every time I stepped onto legion field it was a blessing knowing you change college football in that same stadium,” McMillian wrote.
A Santa Barbara native, Cunningham played for the Trojans for three years, including an All-American season in 1972, when the Trojans also captured the national championship.
In 1973, Cunningham was drafted by the Patriots in the first round, and he stayed with the team for his entire 10-year professional career, which included being named to the Pro Bowl in 1978.
Patriots owner Robert Kraft called Cunningham “one of my favorite players throughout the ’70s,” adding that his death “is felt with heavy hearts.”
“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,” Kraft said in a statement. “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 not the only star athlete in his family. His younger brother, Randall Cunningham, played quarterback in the NFL for 16 years.
Cunningham is survived by his wife, Cine, as well as his daughter Samahndi, brothers Randall, Bruce and Anthony, niece Vashti Cunningham, a world champion high jumper, and nephew Randall II, according to the Associated Press.