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Inspirational Running Back Sam Cunningham Dies at 71

Former USC standout who had a direct impact on integration of Alabama and southern football passed away Tuesday.

From the National Football Foundation: 

Sam "Bam" Cunningham, a 2010 College Football Hall of Fame inductee who starred at fullback for Southern California from 1970-72, passed away Sept. 7 in Inglewood, California.

He was 71.

"Sam Cunningham left a huge impact both on and off the field and not just at USC but nationwide," said NFF Chairman Archie Manning. "From leading the Trojans to a national title to helping inspire the integration of southern football, Sam's legacy will live on forever. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family and friends."

"Sam was the most gifted fullback I've ever known in terms of his speed, in terms of his ability to focus and as a great team player," said NFF Board Member and College Football Hall of Fame inductee Lynn Swann, who was a teammate of Cunningham in the early 1970s. "He could have actually run as a tailback for USC. With his speed and his size, it would have been unbelievable to see him at tailback. But John McKay wanted him to be the fullback, and as we all know, it became a bit of a legend with Sam going over the top of an offensive line. Nobody could stop him."

"Sam was a very happy, energetic person who always made me feel better because I was able to know him," said NFF Board Member and College Football Hall of Fame inductee Ronnie Lott, who played at USC after Cunningham. "We're talking about one of the great Trojans who literally created a legacy for so many people who continue to come after him. I hope that we all pray for his family and for his friends and for his loved ones. To me there is no greater Trojan to be around than Sam."

Cunningham earned the nickname "Bam" for his bruising goal line dives throughout his career with the Trojans. During his three years at USC, the Trojans posted a 24-8-2 record while he became the university's greatest rushing fullback with 1,579 yards and 23 touchdowns.

Playing for College Football Hall of Fame coach John McKay, Cunningham rushed for 135 yards and two touchdowns on 12 carries against Alabama as a rookie in his first game. His performance that day in 1970 against the Crimson Tide is credited for helping Hall of Fame coach Paul "Bear" Bryant integrate southern college football.

"If there's one legacy, which is huge, and I make no qualms about it: the entire SEC, especially Alabama, owes Sam Cunningham, a tremendous debt of thanks and appreciation for his play that opened the door to Black athletes in 1970," said Swann. "There are a lot of athletes who have done their share and more to end discrimination in so many ways. But Sam opened a huge door in the South and in that conference, which did more for minorities and young Black men to have the opportunity to play in the SEC and get an education. It's one of the most significant accomplishments that was a byproduct of his ability to play football."

"A lot of times, when you watch people play, you can feel their presence," said Lott. "One of the great things that day was Sam creating a dynamic where a lot of people felt his presence and how he belonged and others belonged. I think that there were so many guys on that team that will tell you that was a incredible moment. For so many Black players to be able to play in that game and show their value and create an environment where one of the greatest coaches said to himself I gotta find a way to make sure I integrate our team… That moment clearly played an incredible role in college football. We're all indebted to Sam not only for that game, but all the things that he accomplished after that."

A member of the Trojans' 1972 national championship team, Cunningham was named the player of the game after scoring four touchdowns in the 1973 Rose Bowl against Ohio State – a modern-era Rose Bowl record. He was the team's Back of the Year and a team captain of that 1972 squad that many feel is among the greatest college teams of all-time and also featured Hall of Famers Anthony Davis, Lynn Swann, Richard Wood and Charles Young.

A 1972 First Team All-American, Cunningham played in the 1973 Hula Bowl, College All-Star Game and Coaches All-America Game. The Santa Barbara, California, native was inducted into the USC Athletics Hall of Fame in 2001 and the Rose Bowl Hall of Fame in 1992.

Drafted 11th overall in the 1973 NFL Draft by the New England Patriots, he played all nine seasons of his pro career with the franchise. He was named to the AFC Pro Bowl team in 1978, and he is a member of the New England Patriots Hall of Fame.

Following his football career, Cunningham was active in raising money for cancer and worked as a landscape contractor in Inglewood, California.

When his brother Randall Cunningham(UNLV) was inducted in 2016, they became the eighth set of brothers to be inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.