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Sports Then and Now



The Power of Sam “Bam” Cunningham 20

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.

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