Santa Barbara’s Great Cunningham Brothers

Four Athletes Who Made Sports History on the Playing Fields

Santa Barbara’s Great Cunningham Brothers

Four Athletes Who Made Sports History on the Playing Fields

By Victor Bryant | June 17, 2021

CLOSE FAMILY: Surrounding their parents Samuel and Mabel (center) in the late 1960s are the Cunningham brothers (left to right): Anthony, Bruce, Randall, and Sam. Credit: Courtesy

From an early age, Samuel and Mabel Cunningham’s four sons — Sam Jr., Anthony, Bruce, and Randall — made their mark. Whether it was on the Eastside of Santa Barbara, at the beach, on the playgrounds of Franklin Elementary, under the lights at Peabody Stadium, or in the Los Angeles Coliseum, the stage was never too big for the Cunningham brothers to shine.

Through their athletic exploits, they smashed records and broke barriers. The stories of their high school, college, and, in the case of Sam and Randall, professional careers have evolved into legends. But at the heart of all the myths and folklore is a true story of African-American excellence, and it all began in Santa Barbara.

The Rise of Sam ‘Bam’ Cunningham

All four Cunningham brothers were born and raised in Santa Barbara. And as the oldest, Sam had no choice but to make his own name and blaze his own path.

“Santa Barbara was a great place to grow up because it was so diverse and allowed us to mix and blend with other cultures,” Sam said. “It helped me later in life on my journey. The people I met, the friends that I made, and the things that we did kind of gave me an overall head start.”

The Cunninghams moved around a lot during Sam’s childhood, from Gutierrez Street to Haley Street to Cacique Street near the railroad tracks.

Like many Santa Barbara children in the 1950s and 1960s, Sam spent a lot of time riding bikes and going to the beach. He was immersed in the Spanish history, the architecture, and the beautiful outdoor scenery that made Santa Barbara a special place.

“If I had to pick a better place to grow up, I couldn’t have,” Sam admitted.

His introduction to athletics came at Franklin Elementary, where the coach Bill Van Schaick exposed him to organized sports. The Van Schaicks were a family of educators. Bill’s brother Frank worked and coached at Wilson elementary school, which has been converted into the Westside Neighborhood Center, and the two schools formed a crosstown athletic rivalry.

RAISING THE BAR: Randall Cunningham cleared 6’9″ in the high jump for the Santa Barbara Dons. He now coaches his daughter Vashti, who jumped almost as high in making the 2016 U.S. Olympic team. | Credit: Courtesy

“We would play after-school sports. Whatever sport was in season — football, basketball, baseball, and volleyball,” Sam said. “I don’t think I ever played youth [tackle] football. I just played flag football,” he said. “For me, it was whatever school sports were there, that’s what we played.

“In the summer, we would go camping in the Sierras for a week or two. We got immersed in a lot of stuff that if I had grown up in the inner city, I wouldn’t have been exposed to.

“I never knew how great Santa Barbara was until I left. That was really crazy. I always thought it was a pain because of the small-town feel and everybody knew what you were doing and in your business,” he said. “When you get out and everybody says some place is beautiful, you find yourself looking around and saying, ‘This isn’t as beautiful as where I grew up.’”

Getting Serious

In those early years, sports were just a fun pastime for Sam and his classmates. The competitive aspect came later as he moved to Santa Barbara Junior High and Santa Barbara High School.

It wasn’t hard for Sam’s coaches to immediately recognize his athletic talent. He was undeniably gifted: Sports just came naturally, and the Santa Barbara community embraced him and nourished those natural gifts.

TROJAN HORSE: As a USC fullback, Sam Cunningham scored two touchdowns in his first game against Alabama, and three years later scored four touchdowns in the Rose Bowl. | Credit: Courtesy

In high school, Sam continued to develop under head football coach Sam Cathcart, a U.S. Army veteran who served during World War II and the Korean War, and the defensive coordinator Mike Moropoulos. At 6′3″ and 220 pounds, Sam excelled on both sides of the ball as a fullback on offense and a hybrid linebacker or “exaggerated rover,” as he described it, on defense.

Mike Moropoulos’s son Craig is the current head football coach at Santa Barbara City College and has a unique perspective on the four brothers’ careers at Santa Barbara High. As a young boy, Craig grew up admiring Sam and Anthony. Later he played football with Bruce, and when he graduated, Randall took over from him as quarterback. The word Craig used to describe the Cunninghams’ athletic imprint at the high school was “legendary.”

“When Sam was coming through Santa Barbara High, I was a 7- or 8-year-old kid. Sam was the idol. I would get to sit on the bench with him, and I was such a fan,” Craig Moropoulos remembered. “My dad and mom used to have them over for dinner, Sam and some of the other guys. My mom made Greek chicken, which was a lemon fried chicken, and Sam loved it. He was just a very high-character person, and my folks loved him.”

In Sam’s junior year of high school in 1967, the Dons reached the California Interscholastic Federation (CIF) semifinals, which was played at the Los Angeles Coliseum. They suffered a devastating loss to Anaheim High, tarnishing a previously undefeated season, but it was a prelude of things to come for Sam, as he would go on to play football at USC following his senior year.

In track and field, Sam showed impressive speed, running the 100-yard dash in 9.9 seconds. Because the track at Peabody Stadium back then was oval without a long straightaway, the 100 was run on the grass field. 

Sam combined that speed with tremendous strength, allowing him to win the 1969 State Championship in the shot put with a throw of 64′9″. His throwing coach Vern Gambetta, a teaching assistant from UC Santa Barbara at the time, had to learn about shot-put technique from a book, but he and Sam grew in knowledge and skill together over a three-year period.

“Track meets back then were huge events at Santa Barbara High School,” Moropoulos said. “They had one of the best track teams ever. Watching the 4×100 relay and Sam throwing the shot put was incredible.”

Sam’s accomplishments on the track, and those of his brothers later on, were so extraordinary that even 50 years later it is not surprising that an anonymous donor gave the school district $500,000 to name the new track at Peabody Stadium after all four Cunninghams.

Integrating Southern Football

On September 12, 1970, the USC football team became the first fully integrated team to play in the state of Alabama. The Trojans took the field against the Alabama Crimson Tide in Birmingham. For Sam, who was a sophomore, it was his first introduction to big-time college football. (Until 1972, freshmen were not permitted to play varsity football in Division 1.) 

What happened on Legion Field that evening was the birth of an icon and a significant event in African-American history, as Sam rushed 12 times for 135 yards and two touchdowns in a 42-21 USC victory. Integration was bad news for many of the Alabama faithful, but losing was worse. The lopsided USC victory shattered the final stronghold of segregation in college football and helped end the practice of all-white Alabama football teams.

DON DAYS: At Santa Barbara High, Sam Cunningham (34) excelled on both sides of the ball as a fullback on offense and a hybrid linebacker on defense. | Credit: Courtesy

The next season, two Black players, running back Wilbur Jackson and defensive end John Mitchell, donned Alabama uniforms. Alabama assistant coach Jerry Claiborne was famously quoted saying, “Sam Cunningham did more to integrate Alabama in 60 minutes than Martin Luther King did in 20 years.”

There was no indication before the game that Sam would even get to play. He was slated as a backup fullback behind starter Charlie Evans. But he entered the game on USC’s fourth offensive play and danced with destiny.

As a 20-year-old California kid, Sam did not fully recognize the importance of his performance at the time, but over the years, through talking with the Black residents of Birmingham and others, Sam began to appreciate its significance.

“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,” Sam 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.”

Sam went on to a productive career at USC, culminating in the 1973 Rose Bowl, where he put on a performance for the ages with four touchdowns in the second half to lead USC to a 42-17 victory over Ohio State. The victory secured USC the national championship, and Sam was named player of the game.

The New England Patriots drafted Sam with the 11th pick in the first round of the 1973 NFL Draft. He played nine seasons for the Patriots and was a Pro Bowl selection in 1978.

During his years there, the violent protests against busing were taking place in the working-class white neighborhoods of Boston. Having grown up in a mixed and integrated society in Santa Barbara, the concept of a segregated community was foreign to him.

In Boston, however, Sam recalled how white Patriot fans told him, “If I was married and had kids, they wouldn’t mind their kids going to school with my kids, and I’m saying, well why is that? ‘Because you’re a star.’” But Sam said, “Well, that’s not how it’s supposed to go.”

Sam was inducted into the Patriots Hall of Fame in 2010.

Following in the Footsteps of a Legend

Living in the shadow of an older brother can be a challenge, but when your older brother is Sam Cunningham, expectations can reach a fevered pitch.

Also a phenomenal multi-sport athlete, Anthony Cunningham was an aggressive tackler on the football field with speed, agility, and power, which translated onto the track and the baseball field. Yet it was a struggle to convince the world around him that he was his own person, not his older brother.

PREP TO PRO: As a “thinclad” on the Dons track and field team (above), Sam Cunningham won the shot put at the 1969 State Championships. He later lined up for the New England Patriots for nine years in the NFL. | Credit: Courtesy

“I had trouble with [Sam’s legacy]. The first day, I walked in and did jumping jacks. I didn’t touch my hands together, and they said, ‘Sam wouldn’t do that. You got to get out of here,’” Anthony said. “I had to fight to be me so that the door would be open for Bruce and Randall to be who they were.”

Like Sam, Anthony credits the Van Schaick family for enriching his childhood through sports and recreation. He remembered how Bill Van Schaick would put 20 kids “of all colors” in an old truck and take them on adventures. “We built a barn at his house,” he said. “There was a swimming pool and two horses. Every year, if you did everything right, you would go to the Sierras for two weeks.” Anthony believes all this helped keep a lot of kids on the straight and narrow. “Santa Barbara has never honored that family like we should,” he said.

Anthony’s football career took a winding path from Santa Barbara High to SBCC and finally to Boise State. “A.C. was a phenomenal athlete and so instinctive,” Craig Moropoulos said. 

By the time he reached Boise State, Anthony leaned into his unique personality. He started growing dreads and riding a horse around town, which was a bit too much for his football coaches.

“One day I did bring my horse to practice, and the next thing I know, my coach asked the cowboys to get the horse out of here, but they said, ‘That isn’t our horse,’” Anthony remembered. “They all looked at me because everyone knew it was my horse. Two weeks later, they came and told me you no longer have a scholarship and you can’t be on the team. That’s how it ended for me at Boise.”

Anthony is the only one of his siblings who still lives in the City of Santa Barbara. Bruce is close by in Lompoc. Anthony’s son Cheroke was a star running back at Santa Barbara High from 2012 to 2014.

The Ultimate Weapon

Unlike Sam and Anthony, Bruce and Randall had the opportunity to play tackle football early in their childhood through the Youth Football League (YFL). Their mother, Mabel, insisted they play on the same team even though Bruce was a couple of years older and in a different weight group. The first team they played for was the YFL Eagles. 

Throughout their young lives, Sam was a role model and motivational factor for Bruce and Randall, particularly as their older brother moved on from USC and into the NFL. Wherever Sam went when he was in Santa Barbara, they wanted to go with him. Sometimes they would get to meet larger-than-life NFL stars, such as O.J. Simpson and Lynn Swann. “Me and Randall used to cry if we couldn’t hang out with Sam,” Bruce admitted.

As the youngest, Randall was a bit of a project for all of his older brothers. “We used to go to the beach to run on the sand … and go to City College to run those stadium stairs,” Bruce said. “We knew Randall’s potential … so we would just work him and work him and work him.”

Randall was tall and lanky with an athletic frame from a young age. He got a head start throwing the ball from playing with his brothers in their backyard. As he rose through the football ranks, he was always a quarterback; it was a natural role for him.

In Randall’s senior season at Santa Barbara High, he led the Dons to a 13-0 start including a 15-14 victory over rival Dos Pueblos that saw Randall convert a do-or-die two-point conversion to clinch the victory. In addition, Randall captured the school record in the high jump by clearing 6′9″.

The Dons’ storybook season came to a close with a loss to a stacked Long Beach Poly team in the CIF Championship game, but Randall’s football journey was just beginning to gain steam.

“USC was recruiting me, and I really wanted to follow in my brother Sam’s footsteps. The one thing I was concerned about was: Am I going to be able to throw the ball?” Randall recalled. He thought that USC was more interested in featuring the offensive linemen and running backs. “I was about to sign,” he said, but “I was a young, wiry kid who wanted to feel special.”

So instead, he followed Bruce to the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV), where the Rebels had a history of success with African American quarterbacks. They ran a wide-open offense for that time period that put Randall’s elite ability throwing the football on full display. Of course, Mabel was thrilled to have the brothers together again. 

Randall broke 18 school records during his career as UNLV’s quarterback and punter. After leading UNLV to a program-best 11 wins in 1984, he was the 37th overall pick and the first quarterback selected in the 1985 NFL Draft by the Philadelphia Eagles.

“All I know is that if I’m at a park and we’re all in our prime and able to play really good football, if I get to choose my quarterback, it’s going to be my brother,” Sam said of Randall’s place in history. “You can pick whoever you want to, but I got mine.”

There were other Black quarterbacks that had success in the NFL prior to Randall, but none had been as electrifying. Randall revolutionized the position with prototypical size, speed, and arm talent. More importantly, he helped destroy the racist notion that Black people lacked the intelligence and leadership skills for the position.

“Whether it was Alabama not having people of color on their team or whether it was the NFL saying that a Black quarterback can’t make it because they are not smart enough, for Sam to be a Pro Bowler, and for me to be the first quarterback picked in the draft in 1985 speaks for itself,” Randall said. “I really didn’t want to deal with that. I wanted to act as though we were sort of past that.”

When he retired, Randall had the most rushing yards by a quarterback in NFL history. He was selected to four Pro Bowls and was first team All-Pro in 1998.

But Randall, like all his brothers, never forgot their Santa Barbara roots, particularly their high school careers. So when Peabody Stadium was being renovated, Randall helped bring one of the top track and field flooring providers to the project. He had been so satisfied with the quality of its surface he had installed on his small backyard track that he requested Mondo Track Surfaces to submit a bid. When it came in low and was accepted, “I was blown away,” Randall said. “I told the people … let’s put Mondo down and we’ll be one of the only Mondo high schools in America. They agreed, and we saved probably $400,000-$500,000.”

Now that track is named after one of the greatest sports families in Santa Barbara history.


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