Sam “Bam” Cunningham, a member of the College Football Hall of Fame as well as the Patriots’ team Hall of Fame died on Tuesday at his home in Inglewood, California. He was 71.
Growing up in New England back in the day the Patriots were far from the franchise they are today. But as Bob Dylan sang, “the times they are changing” and changes came in 1973 with the hiring of Chuck Fairbanks.
The Patriots who traditionally had drafted poorly had three first-round picks in 1973. Their first and #4 overall was John Hannah, who would end up in Canton and was proclaimed the “best offensive lineman of all-time” by Sports Illustrated.
At #11, the Patriots drafted Sam Cunningham out of USC. And finally, at #19, the team drafted Darryl Stingley who had a terrific career ahead of him when his neck was broken in a preseason game in Oakland.
Cunningham became an icon in New England. Because of his size, athleticism, and physicality, he was impossible not to root for. Known as Sam “Bam”, he was well-known at USC for leaping over the pile at the goal line. And young kids all over New England at every playing level from the sandlots to the high schools wanted to leap over the piles of defensive players ala Sam “Bam”.
Cunningham was big, 6’2, 233 pounds, and set a team rookie rushing record, and later in 1977, he led the Patriots in rushing with 1015 yards, but also in receiving as well. A year later in 1978, he was part of a Patriots running back by committee group that set a record for rushing yards with 3165 that would stand until 2019 when it was broken by the Ravens. He retired as the Patriots’ all-time leading rusher with 5453 yards, which he still holds. He was inducted into the Patriots’ Hall of Fame in 2010. He was also named to the Patriots’ 50th Anniversary Team.
His college career at USC was one that ultimately led to him being inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1992. Cunningham was named an All-American in 1972 when he captained the Trojans to a national championship. One of his best college performances came against Ohio State in the 1973 Rose Bowl, when he ran for four touchdowns, earning MVP honors, in the blowout 42-17 win over the Buckeyes.
But his college legacy goes far beyond just rushing numbers. Cunningham was regarded as the catalyst for speeding up the integration of the South’s football teams. In 1970, Cunningham ran for 135 yards and two touchdowns against Alabama, then coached by Bear Bryant and was a totally white football team.
In a recent interview with the Santa Barbara Independent, Cunningham relayed his feelings about that game and the era.
“I didn’t go into any game looking to change history, even though history has a tendency to be changed by things of that nature,” Cunningham said. “I always tried to play to the best of my ability, and that’s what I did that evening. I was put in the right spot and got touched by the hand of God.”
Bryant, as Cunningham, later said, “saw the future.” A year later, Bryant’s Crimson Tide had recruited and given scholarships to black players for the first time and ended up in the National Championship Game. Bryant’s teams would win three championships.
One of Bear Bryant’s assistants, Jerry Claiborne said, “Sam Cunningham did more to integrate Alabama in 60 minutes than Martin Luther King did in 20 years.”
Lynn Swann, a Hall of Fame WR with the Steelers and a teammate of Cunningham’s at USC, said, “The entire SEC, especially Alabama, owes Sam Cunningham a tremendous debt of thanks and appreciation for his play that opened the door to Black athletes in 1970.
“There are a lot of athletes who have done their share and more to end discrimination in so many ways. But Sam opened a huge door in the South and in that conference, which did more for minorities and young Black men to have the opportunity to play in the SEC and get an education.”
The Patriots released a statement about Cunningham’s passing on the team’s website.
“We are deeply saddened to learn of yet another loss to the Patriots family this week and our hearts ache for Sam Cunningham’s family and all who are mourning his passing today,” said Patriots Chairman and CEO Robert Kraft.
“Sam ‘Bam’ Cunningham was one of my favorite players throughout the ’70s and my sons all loved him. 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. As a Patriots Hall of Famer, Sam’s legacy and contributions will be preserved and celebrated forever, but today his loss is felt with heavy hearts.”
Bill Belichick also addressed Cunningham’s legacy in the league.
“Sam had a great college career and pro career here in New England,” Belichick said. “I never coached Sam, and I only played against him a couple of times. He was in, of course, the AFC when we were in the NFC with the Giants, so we didn’t really, fortunately, cross paths too much with him.
“Big fullback in a two-back era where fullbacks now are, the few of them that there are, are primarily blockers whereas in that day, going back to Jim Brown and Jim Taylor and a bunch of other fullbacks, those guys were ball carriers. Franco Harris and Sam was that, so he could block. He could run. He had great size.
“It’s sad. We’ve lost two great Patriots (David Patten) here in the last week.”
His brother Randall, played 16 seasons in the NFL as a QB, mostly for the Philadelphia Eagles.
Posted Under: Patriots Commentary
Tags: Bill Belichick New England Patriots Patriots 50th anniversary team Patriots running backs Patriots team Hall of Fame Robert Kraft Sam Cunningham