The Trojan Family lost a legend last Tuesday, as former fullback Sam “Bam” Cunningham (’73) died at the age of 71 in his Inglewood home.
Cunningham was a man who accomplished a great deal – he was an All-American back in 1972, and the Rose Bowl MVP in 1973. He was drafted with the 11th overall pick in the 1973 NFL Draft by the New England Patriots and finished his career as the franchise’s all-time leading rusher-- a title he still holds to this day. His name resides in both the College Football and New England Patriots Hall of Fame.
However, the legacy of “Bam” transcends mere statistics and accolades – while his achievements on the gridiron are certainly noteworthy, the value that the name Sam Cunningham carries in college football, and in our society, is much more than six points.
September 12, 1970 – that was the day that head coach John McKay and the Trojans travelled to the deep south to take on Bear Bryant and the Crimson Tide in the season opener. However, this game was notably larger than a mere cross-country rivalry. . These were two of the most storied programs in college football history, two powerhouses, led by two coaches whose legacies will undoubtedly stand the test of time.
But even with all the history on the field, this game’s significance lay in what it meant for the future.
Not much needs to be said about the deeply entrenched racism woven into the history of Alabama. We know the story – the Birmingham church bombing, the Montgomery bus boycotts, the state-sanctioned terrorism. The collective mentality of those in power in Alabama at the time can be described by the infamous declaration from Governor George Wallace, calling for segregation today, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever.
A hard-fought war for equality was being waged in the south, and justice was steadily prevailing. Despite protests from Wallace, the University of Alabama had finally opened its doors to Black students for the first time in 1963. However, that barrier was not broken across all facets of the institution – the pride and joy of the Crimson Tide, the football team, remained all-white.
In contrast, USC’s 1970 roster featured both Black and white players. In fact, the Trojans were the first fully integrated college unit to touch the gridiron in Alabama – and they got busy.
Bryant and company didn’t stand a chance. USC’s offense was faster and more agile. The defense was bigger and stronger. The Trojans dominated both sides of the ball, imposing their will up and down the Birmingham turf en route to a 42-21 trouncing of the Tide – and they were led by a sophomore fullback, playing in his first varsity game for the Cardinal and Gold.
Sam Cunningham rushed for 135 yards and two touchdowns on just 12 carries that night, leaving the Crimson Tide faithful with their jaws dropped. On a night when his primary concern was not screwing up, Cunningham delivered one of the best performances of his career. At 6′3″ and 230 pounds, his running style was a rare confluence of speed, power and grace that was nothing short of unstoppable for the Alabama defense.
After the final horn sounded, the two teams parted ways in an anticlimactic fashion – at the time, the matchup was seen as a simple ass-whooping. However, in the decades following, the legend of the game, and Sam Cunningham, steadily grew. Because he was such a dominant force that night, there are many who attribute the integration of Alabama football to his performance. Many college football fans believe that it was Cunningham’s stellar play that opened the eyes of the Crimson Tide faithful to the prowess of Black football players, opening the door for Bryant to pursue more talent from that demographic.
That’s how the story goes, anyway.
It is easy for us to mythologize events like Rosa Parks’ refusal to leave her seat and Ruby Bridges’ enrollment in elementary school, and idealize figures like Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. More difficult, however, is to acknowledge the true breadth of these movements – the collective powerbuilding that is always necessitated in movements toward our collective liberation.
Often, when discussions regarding the history of the fight for social justice are had, progress is simplified and attributed to singular moments and individuals. Things become more palatable that way. It is easy for us to mythologize events like Rosa Parks’ refusal to leave her seat and Ruby Bridges’ enrollment in elementary school, and idealize figures like Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. More difficult, however, is to acknowledge the true breadth of these movements – the collective powerbuilding that is always necessitated in movements toward our collective liberation.
The events of September 12, 1970, while certainly a watershed moment in the history of college football and in America, have fallen victim to the same sort of narrative creation that diminishes the efforts made by so many others in the pursuit of equity and justice. Many myths surfaced in the decades following the game – that Bear Bryant presented Cunningham to his team after the game, proclaiming that this is a football player; that Alabama was not already recruiting Black players prior to the game; that John McKay and Bear Bryant intentionally conspired in the scheduling of the game in an effort to persuade Crimson Tide faithful to be more receptive to Black players being part of the team.
The fact of the matter is, Sam Cunningham, broad as his shoulders may have been, could never have carried the burden of desegregating Alabama’s football team. Humble as he was, he likely would have agreed. It was a collective effort – even on the field with Cunningham that night, other Black players such as quarterback Jimmy Jones and running back Clarence Davis had a significant impact on the outcome of the game.
Sam Cunningham’s performance was certainly a watershed moment in the history of college football, and America – this isn’t to diminish his impact on the game, or society at large. Rather, as we mourn the loss of the great man and celebrate his legacy, let us honor the entirety of the collective that he was a part of – all of the John McKay’s who allowed space for Black players to seize opportunities that they’d earned through their play; all of the Bear Bryant’s who embraced the future, rather than continue to wade in the ugliness of the past; all of the Sam Cunningham’s who, in the face of a mountain of pressure and prejudice, answered when their number was called upon.