Sam “Bam” Cunningham, an All-American fullback at Southern California whose performance against Alabama was credited with helping to integrate football in the South before going 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 older brother, Randall, starred as a quarterback in the NFL for 16 years.
As a sophomore in 1970, 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 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 fully integrate the sport in the South.
“What they saw was the future,” Cunningham told ESPN in 2016. “Their team was eventually going to be integrated.”
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, 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.
Cunningham finished his NFL career with 5,453 rushing yards, 210 receptions for 1,905 yards, and 49 touchdowns.
He 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.