For the second time in a seven-day span, the New England Patriots are mourning the loss of a valued member of the team’s family.
On Tuesday, Patriots Hall of Fame running back Sam Cunningham passed away at the age of 71. Known affectionately to his fans as Sam “Bam” Cummingham, he is the franchise’s all-time leading rusher. Cunningham was inducted into the Patriots Hall of Fame in 2010 and was also a member of the Patriots 50th Anniversary Team.
While Patriots fans will predominantly remember him for his accomplishments in New England, Cunningham had a prolific collegiate career at the University of Southern California. There, he earned consensus All-America honors, while helping the Trojans’ win a national championship in 1972. His dominant performance in USC’s 42-21 win against an all-white Alabama team in 1970 was said to have been the catalyst for southern schools to integrate; forcing them to realize that segregated programs would be unable to compete with the more-complete integrated teams. Jerry Claiborne, a former Alabama assistant coach under Paul ‘Bear’ Bryant once said, "Sam Cunningham did more to integrate Alabama in 60 minutes than Martin Luther King did in 20 years.
Cunningham was drafted 11th overall by the Patriots in 1973, the second of three first-round picks joining John Hannah (4th overall) and Darryl Stingley (19th). He played for the Patriots for nine seasons, appearing in 107 games from 1973-79 and 81-82. He played his entire career with the Patriots and was a 1978 Pro Bowl selection. Cunningham was an integral part of the 1978 Patriots, who set an NFL record for rushing yards as a team with 3,165. This record stood for more than forty years and was not broken until the 2019 Baltimore Ravens. Cunningham finished his career with 5,453 rushing yards, 210 receptions for 1,905 yards, and 49 touchdowns.
Patriots Chairman and CEO Robert Kraft memorialized Cunningham by issuing the following statement:
“We are deeply saddened to learn of yet another loss to the Patriots family this week and our hearts ache for Sam Cunningham’s family and all who are mourning his passing today. “Sam ‘Bam’ Cunningham was one of my favorite players throughout the ‘70s and my sons all loved him. After I bought the team in 1994, it was my honor to welcome him back to the team on multiple occasions, recognizing him as a 50th anniversary team member and again for his induction into the Patriots Hall of Fame. As much as I admired him as a player, my affection for him only grew after spending time with him and learning more about him as a person. He made a tremendous impact, both on and off the field, and was beloved by his teammates. As a Patriots Hall of Famer, Sam’s legacy and contributions will be preserved and celebrated forever, but today his loss is felt with heavy hearts.”
Among Cunningham’s survivors is his younger brother, former NFL quarterback, Randall Cunningham.