Santa Barbara Football Legend Sam Cunningham Dies at 71

Sam 'Bam' Cunningham Was a Santa Barbara High School, USC, and New England Patriots Star

Sam “Bam” Cunningham, the former Santa Barbara High School star athlete and oldest of the four Cunningham brothers — whom Peabody Stadium’s new track was recently named in honor of — has died at the age of 71.

Sam Cunningham | Credit: Courtesy

Cunningham excelled in both football and in track and field for the Dons in the late 1960s and became a powerhouse fullback at USC, where his unforgettable performance in a game at Alabama in 1970 helped integrate Southern football. Only a sophomore at the time, he unleashed a 135-yard, two-touchdown show that led the Trojans to a 41-21 win and changed the face of the traditionally white Southern football landscape.

In a recent interview with Santa Barbara Independent sportswriter Victor Bryant, Cunningham discussed the impact of his performance on that night: “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.”

After earning first team All American honors and a USC national championship in 1972, Cunningham scored four touchdowns and was named the 1973 Rose Bowl MVP. He has since been inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame and Rose Bowl Hall of Fame.

After playing in the NFL for nine seasons for the New England Patriots, he was also named a member of the Patriots Hall of Fame. He is still the franchise’s all-time leading rusher with 5,453 yards.

He was the oldest of four Cunningham brothers, followed by Anthony, Bruce, and Randall — who was also a star quarterback in the NFL. The Cunningham brothers were noted in the community for their athletic talent, and Santa Barbara High School recently named the new track at Peabody Stadium in their honor. Sam was unable to attend the ceremony for health reasons.

USC announced Cunningham passed away Tuesday in Inglewood, California. The cause of death has yet to be released.

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