Out of all the great USC players that he could have mentioned before his first meeting with the Trojans last week, Notre Dame football coach Brian Kelly thought of one. “I go way back to Sam ‘Bam’ Cunningham,” Kelly said.
Cunningham did not put up gaudy numbers when he played for the Trojans. A fullback at “Tailback U,” he was assigned to block on most plays. “He was the most devastating blocker I’ve seen,” said Mike Moropoulos, one of his coaches at Santa Barbara High. “It hurt his chances to become known as a great running back.” At 6′3″ and 212 pounds, Cunningham was a scary runner in high school. He scored 39 touchdowns for the Dons and pulverized opponents as a defensive linebacker.
He is best remembered for two games at USC, one at the beginning and the other at the end of his college career. In September of 1970 at Legion Field in Birmingham, Alabama, Cunningham ran roughshod over Bear Bryant’s all-white Alabama team, leading the Trojans to a 42-21 triumph. That performance gave Bryant the permission—indeed, the encouragement—to ramp up the integration of the Crimson Tide, changing forever the face of football in the South. On New Year’s Day 1973, Cunningham set a Rose Bowl record by plunging for four touchdowns, breaking a 7-7 halftime tie between USC and Ohio State as the undefeated Trojans won the national championship.
A first-round draft pick, Cunningham went on to play nine years for the New England Patriots and was their leading rusher. Next Tuesday (Dec. 7) at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City, he will become the fourth player from the 1972 USC team to be inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame, following Lynn Swann, Richard Wood, and Anthony Davis. Others in the Class of 2010 include former UCLA guard Randy Cross and Arizona State linebacker Pat Tillman.
Cunningham acknowledges his hometown for nurturing his athletic abilities. “I’ve always tried to represent Santa Barbara in a positive way,” he said. “I learned about teamwork from all my coaches there—Bill Van Schaick, [Sam] Cathcart, Moropoulos, Walt Evans … and then there was Coach Goux.”
Marv Goux was a fierce player at S.B. High and USC who later breathed fire into the Trojans as their assistant coach. He recruited Cunningham to USC. Goux’s passion was at its peak whenever the Trojans played Notre Dame.
“He reveled in it,” Cunningham said. “We played back there my junior year. The first two rows of fans were behind our bench, and they’d yell at us to sit down. Coach Goux challenged them to meet him in the parking lot after the game. Nobody showed up.” There also was a brawl on the field during the game, Cunningham recalled. “The benches cleared, people were on the ground being choked, but nobody got kicked out.”
Although he was a powerful figure in a violent game, Cunningham has a peaceful, gentlemanly disposition. When the National Football Foundation announced he would be going into the Hall of Fame, he was humble in expressing his appreciation. His wife, Cine, and daughter, Samahndi, will accompany him to New York.
Cunningham lives a simple life in Inglewood. He works as a landscaper. He rides a bicycle for fitness. “I usually get up at 5 a.m. and ride my bike 10 or 15 miles with my neighbor,” he said. “You don’t want to ride those streets later in the day.”
But he rode across town to be near the Coliseum last Saturday when the Trojans played Notre Dame. The NCAA’s crackdown on the USC program included banning former players from the sideline at games and practices. Cunningham wound up at a Starbucks, listening to the game on his iPod.
“It starts raining, and I’m seven or eight miles from my house, so I get back on my bike,” he said. “Three miles out, I get a flat tire. This is crazy. But then I think of the kids on the team [USC lost to the Fighting Irish, 20-16], how miserable it must be for them. You can deal with some other defeats, but you don’t want to lose to Notre Dame or UCLA. I had a cigar. I lit it up in the rain, and I thought how lucky I was. My senior year was perfect.”
COLLEGE CUP UPDATE: Cal followed its controversial overtime victory over UCSB with a 2-0 shutout of Brown in the third round of the NCAA men’s soccer tournament. The four top-seeded teams also advanced and will host the quarterfinal matchups this weekend: UCLA at No. 1 Louisville; Michigan at No. 2 Maryland; Cal at No. 3 Akron; and SMU at No. 4 North Carolina. The winning teams will head to Santa Barbara for the 2010 College Cup at UCSB’s Meredith Field at Harder Stadium on December 10-12.