Sam Cunningham will be on the field as USC’s honorary captain Saturday night, September 3, when the Trojans take on No. 1 Alabama in the nationally televised college football kickoff at Arlington, Texas.
It would not be much of a reach for the fullback known as Sam Bam to turn around and also represent Alabama in an honorary role. He did not play for the Crimson Tide, but he helped bring about a massive change for the better on football teams throughout the South.
Cunningham, a strapping sophomore from Santa Barbara, shredded Alabama’s defense in his college football debut on September 12, 1970, at Legion Field in Birmingham. The 6’3”, 212-pound fullback thundered for the first two touchdowns while piling up 135 yards on only 12 carries in USC’s stunning 42-21 victory.
The game acquired lasting historical significance because USC’s roster was replete with African-Americans, including Cunningham, while Alabama was represented by an all-white squad, as it had been for the entire century. Among all of the nation’s major sports, college football in the South was the last bastion of segregation. It crumbled in the seasons following USC’s victory.
Alabama coach Paul “Bear” Bryant welcomed the change. He had two black recruits in the wings when USC came to town. So the wall was coming down, but many were left with the impression that Cunningham singularly blasted a hole in it. 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.”
Among the myths that sprouted from the game was a story that Bryant took Cunningham to the Alabama locker room and told his players, “This is what a football player looks like.” It never happened, Sam said, but Bryant did congratulate him and other Trojans.
And, having watched Sam Cunningham play football since 1968, his senior year at Santa Barbara High, through his USC career and nine years in the NFL, I can say that he is the most complete football player I’ve ever seen. Baseball has its “five-tool” players. In the specialization of football, there are six tools, and Cunningham was a master of four:
—Blocking: He paved the way for tailbacks like Clarence Davis and protected quarterbacks as one of the most devastating blockers in any backfield.
—Tackling: He was an all-league linebacker for the S.B. Dons and without a doubt would have been a force if he continued to play defense after high school.
—Running: He was known for his plunges over the line — including a record four TDs in the 1973 Rose Bowl Game — but he also had speed. He gained 1,015 yards in 1977 for the New England Patriots.
—Receiving: “I was a wide receiver before I was a running back,” said Cunningham, who did not play tackle football until the 10th grade. “Not many people know that. I outran all the wide receivers.” He caught 42 passes for the Patriots in 1977.
That leaves passing and kicking. Cunningham was never called on to display those skills. He left it to his younger brother, Randall, to play quarterback and also punt booming spirals.
Foremost among Sam’s qualities was his team-first approach to sports. “I learned in [Franklin] elementary school to be a part of a team, not to be a star,” he said. “If you are a part of a team and you help your team win, then everybody gets a little bit of shine at the end of the day.” When USC went undefeated in 1972, he said, “That’s what it was all about. We won the national championship because we played as a team, not because I could fly over the line.”
Going into the 1970 Alabama game, Cunningham said, “I was nervous. I didn’t want to make a dumb mistake.” He was the second-string fullback behind Charlie Evans, but coach John McKay sent him onto the field in the first quarter, and the result was described by the title of a book published in 2006: Turning of the Tide.
“The book told the civil-rights thing,” Cunningham said, but after he’d grown up in racial harmony in Santa Barbara, the monochromatic faces on the other side of the line in Birmingham did not register with him. “I was glad I got a chance to play,” he said. “Line up and play football with intensity, and what will be will be. We were bigger, stronger, and faster. I think Bear Bryant knew he was going to get beat, but he didn’t know he was going to get beat like that.”
In retrospect, the 66-year-old Inglewood resident said, “Everybody understands what’s happened to football in the South. I tell my nephew he can go to any school because of that. I’m proud to be part of it.”
After participating in pregame activities Saturday, Cunningham said, “I’ll go up in the stands and root hard for the Trojans.” Alabama, which for many years now has been playing with a full deck, will not be overpowered this time.
S.B. ATHLETIC ROUND TABLE ATHLETES OF THE WEEK
John Harris, Bishop Diego Football
Got the Cardinals rolling with a 75-yard touchdown run early in the second half of a 21-0 victory over Righetti in Santa Maria. The junior running back finished the game with 200 yards on 21 carries and two TDs.
Amanda Ball, UCSB Soccer
The junior forward from Chino Hills scored all four goals, including two game-winners in overtime, as the Gaucho women opened their season by defeating Fresno State 3-2 and St. Mary’s College 1-0.