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Sports Then and Now

The Power of Sam “Bam” Cunningham

Posted on September 25, 2011 by Dan Flaherty

Before he came to New England, Sam Cunningham was one of college football's significant players

It was September 12, 1970 that a man who would soon be a vital part of the Boston sports scene helped change the course of college football history. USC had a big fullback by the name of Sam Cunningham. When opposing players saw him in street clothes they thought he must be an offensive lineman because of his 6’3” 225 lb frame (yes, times have changed). But he was in the Trojan backfield and the night of 9/12, USC visited Alabama to face an all-white Crimson Tide team. Cunningham ran over and around the Tide, piling up 135 yards rushing as his team won 42-21. Legend has it that Alabama coach Bear Bryant made the decision to integrate his team based on Cunningham’s performance.

There’s some urban legend mixed in with this story. In truth, Bryant had already signed an African-American player to come on board the following year, but Cunningham’s performance didn’t hurt the coach’s effort to achieve more complete racial integration. It was a rare case where an athlete’s on-field performance takes on social significance and after three years of success at Southern Cal, Cunningham was drafted in the first round by the Patriots prior to the 1973 season.

It was the start of a good 10-year run for player and team, though it got off to a rough start. Cunningham rushed for 516 yards in his rookie year and was the leader of a mostly pedestrian backfield on a team that went 5-9. The following year Cunningham, gave way to Mack Herron as the team’s leading rusher, something that would occasionally take place in his career, given the importance of the fullback as a blocker. Something worked in ’74, because the Patriots got off to a 7-4 start before losing their final three games and missing the playoffs. Before we think that this collapse was akin to the ’74 Red Sox saga we looked at last week, bear in mind that New England played the AFC’s three great powers, Miami, Pittsburgh and Oakland in the season’s final three weeks.

Cunningham, in the course of his career acquired the nickname “Bam”, with it being used as a middle name rather than a replacement for his first name. His career continued on an upward trajectory the following year as he rushed for 800-plus yards for the second straight year while the offense went through a period of transition. Jim Plunkett, a Heisman Trophy winning quarterback in college, hadn’t worked out since being drafted by New England and was moved out of town. He would resuscitate his career with the Raiders five years later, but for now the Pats were better off giving 22-year old Steve Grogan the keys to the offense.

Cunningham enjoyed a 10-year career in New England and rushed for 1,000 yards in 1977

One year later it all came together. Cunningham again broke the 800-yard barrier and led the team in rushing, while the offense was one of the top units in the NFL. Andy Johnson was an unheralded contributor to the running attack led by Cunningham. New England won 11 games, with only a heartbreaking and controversial defeat at Oakland in the 1976 AFC Divisional Round ending their season. The Pats were strong again in ’77 and Sam Bam had the best year of his career, rushing for over 1,000 yards in the final year that the NFL schedule was only 14 games. The team went 9-5, but in an era where only four teams per conference made the playoffs, those nine wins weren’t enough.

1977 was the peak of Cunningham’s career. He was named to the Pro Bowl in ’78, but this really seems to be a case of selectors being one year behind schedule. Cunningham was still an effective back and the leader on a team that won the AFC East, but he was below 800 yards for the first time in five years despite having two additional regular season games. In 1980, injuries cost him his season and 1981-82 saw the back more or less glide into retirement.

Cunningham was a key player in an era that, prior to the Belichick/Brady era was probably the most consistent period of Patriots history. From 1974-78 there were two playoff appearances, another year that would have been by the standards of today and only late slide in ’74 costing them. The offense consistently ranked near the top of the league in scoring and the fullback who established the run and blocked has to be considered a big reason why.

Sam Cunningham is a member of both the Patriots and College Football's Hall of Fame.

Sam Bam Cunningham went into the New England Patriots Hall of Fame last year. He is also a member of the College Football Hall of Fame. His family’s legacy in the NFL continued with his brother Randall, a star quarterback for the Philadelphia Eagles and Minnesota Vikings in the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s.

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