Sam Cunningham, USC football great who became New England Patriots' all-time leading rusher, dies at 71

50 years ago, Sam Cunningham, the USC Trojans, ran all over Alabama. This helped push the Crimson Tide towards integrating their all-white football squad. (6:08).
According to USC, Sam "Bam", a former fullback for the New England Patriots and USC, died Tuesday at home in Inglewood. He was 71 years old.

The cause of death was not yet known.

Cunningham was inducted into College Football Hall of Fame 1992. He is widely known for his efforts to speed up integration in football programs throughout the South. Cunningham ran 135 yards and scored two touchdowns in the USC win over an all-white Alabama team, which opened the 1970 season. This performance and those of his Black teammates was crucial to Alabama coach Bear Bryant's decision not to recruit Black players.

Cunningham stated to ESPN that "What they saw was a future." "Their team was eventually to be integrated."

Alabama's first Black player on scholarship was in 1971. They went on to win the national championship. Bryant and his Crimson Tide team won three more national championships during this decade.

Former Bryant assistant Jerry Claiborne famously stated, "Sam Cunningham did less to integrate Alabama in 60 mins than Martin Luther King did over 20 years."

Sam "Bam" Cunningham, former USC fullback, has died. His performance against Alabama was widely credited with helping integrate football in the South. He was 71. University of Southern California/Collegiate Images via Getty Images

Lynn Swann, who was a USC teammate of Cunningham, stated that the entire SEC, particularly Alabama, owes Sam Cunningham an overwhelming debt of gratitude and appreciation for opening up the doors to Black athletes in 1970.

"There are many athletes who have done more to eliminate discrimination in so many different ways. Sam was able to open a lot of doors in the South, and that conference did more to ensure that minorities and young Black men had the chance to participate in the SEC as well as receive an education.

Cunningham was named All-American in 1972 when he led the Trojans to a national title. In the 1973 Rose Bowl against Ohio State, Cunningham ran for four touchdowns and earned MVP honors in a win of 42-17.

In his USC career, Cunningham ran for 1,579 yards with 23 touchdowns, 13 of which were TDs in 1972. Cunningham's three years at USC saw the Trojans record 24-8-2. This nickname was given to him by his teammates as "Bam" for his daring goal line dives.

Swann stated, "It became something of a legend with Sam going above the top of an offensive-line." "Nobody could stop them."

Cunningham was drafted No. Cunningham was drafted No. 11 in the 1973 NFL draft. He went on to play nine seasons with the Patriots, becoming the all-time top rusher.

In 1978, he was a Pro Bowl selection. The Patriots set a record for the NFL in rushing yards with 3,165. This record stood until the Baltimore Ravens broke it in 2019.

Cunningham retired after the 1982 season with 5,453 yards of rushing and 49 touchdowns.

Later, he was inducted into USC Athletics Hall of Fame (2001), and the Patriots Half of Fame (2010).

Robert Kraft, Patriots owner, said that Sam 'Bam Cunningham was a favorite player throughout the 1970s and that his sons loved him. "It was my honor to receive him back to the team after I purchased the team in 1994. Recognizing him as a 50th anniversary member and again for his induction in the Patriots Hall of Fame.

He was a great player and I loved him, but my love for him as an individual only grew as I got to know him better. His teammates loved him and he had a huge impact on the field and off it. Sam is a Patriots Hall of Famer and his contributions will be remembered forever. However, today's loss is deeply felt.

Cunningham was a landscape contractor in California after his playing career. Cunningham was born in Santa Barbara and raised there.

Cunningham is survived his wife Cine, daughter Samahndi and brothers Bruce, Anthony, and Randall. Randall was a 16-year veteran quarterback in the NFL. Vashti Cunningham was a world champion high jumper, and Randall II is his nephew.

This report was contributed by The Associated Press.