The Unlikely Catalyst

The Unlikely Catalyst

Sam “Bam” Cunningham. (Photo courtesy of USC Athletics)

On a hot and humid Saturday night in Birmingham, Alabama, Sam Cunningham stood patiently on the sideline of Legion Field waiting for his number to be called. The fullback from the University of Southern California was about to make history in a game that would later be credited with changing the course of college football forever. Sometimes history is made almost entirely in secret to its participants. Sometimes fate calls on one man who is simply in the right place at the right time. That Saturday, fate tapped on Sam Cunningham’s broad shoulders, and the sophomore fullback from USC did not feel a thing.

“I knew that if I didn’t play well, I wouldn’t be playing again,” Cunningham recalls with a laugh nearly 45 years later. “So that pretty much trumped everything.”

He is sitting in a faded red seat across from the Coliseum peristyle, reaching back into the depths of his memory to describe the night that changed the course of his life.

The story of the 1970 USC-Alabama game has become well-documented legend. Bear Bryant’s all-white Alabama Crimson Tide hosted the Trojans in the opening game of the season, a showdown of two of the best and yet two of the most different teams of the previous decade. USC featured a black starting quarterback, fullback and tailback along with a host of other African-American players, and would be the first fully integrated team to play in the state of Alabama. The outcome would change everything about SEC football in the years to come.

Sam Cunningham was somewhat of an unlikely hero to play a shaping role in integrating college football in the South. Born and raised in Santa Barbara, he grew up far removed from the events of the Civil Rights Movement. When he was four, the Supreme Court ruled that segregation in schools was unconstitutional. Cunningham was busy running around his neighborhood playing any game with any ball on which he could get his growing hands. When he was five, Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery. Cunningham was starting school at Franklin Elementary, in class with children of Hispanic, African, Asian and European descent alike.

Sam “Bam” Cunningham at the LA Memorial Coliseum. (Photo courtesy of USC Athletics)

“I saw the images on television and I knew there were issues, but where I grew up those issues were not there,” he explains. “That’s not to say that we didn’t have issues, but nothing like the South. We weren’t getting chased by dogs or sprayed with water hoses or fearing for our lives when we went to church. We were able to just live and be kids and enjoy ourselves.”

When it came time to go to college, Cunningham found a school with a storied football tradition just like Santa Barbara High. He was 19 on his first day of class, and while he was focused on adjusting to college football and college coursework, the concerns of the rest of the country were a bit more severe. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated just one year prior, and the South was still entrenched in racial dissension.

Sam “Bam” Cunningham. (Photo Courtesy of USC Atheltics)

But while segregation was still the norm in Alabama, life in Southern California was vastly different. For many years, players of different races had been lining up alongside each other at USC, and African-American players at USC didn’t feel the sting of racism as sharply as their counterparts in the South. As the Trojans prepared to face Alabama in Cunningham’s sophomore year, the concept that integration in football was controversial for some people was a new one.

“That game was my first time having to think about that issue in football,” explains Cunningham.

“To me, I always saw it as you get dressed, you go out here and you try and beat whoever is on the other side of that line.”

Cunningham certainly didn’t intend on stirring up any controversy on his first collegiate road trip, but from the start, nothing was normal about the Alabama game. Upon their arrival, the Trojans were greeted at the airport by an excited welcoming party, including a band, cheerleaders and a crowd of people curious to see the Crimson Tide’s guests.

“We got a police escort through a part of the town that was lower income and had more blacks,” Cunningham recounts. “They all came outside to wave at our bus. They couldn’t see us, but I think they knew we were that team from California with black players.

“After that trip, I thought all the away games were going to be like that,” he says laughing. “They weren’t. That one was pretty unique.”

Cunningham had little basis for comparison, as that Saturday’s game against Alabama was to be his first ever as a Trojan. In that time, freshmen couldn’t play on the varsity squad, which meant the sophomore fullback spent most of the minutes, days and weeks leading up to the game wondering if he’d even get a chance to play.

“I was nervous,” he says with his eyes lost deep in memory. “It was hot, humid and on artificial turf, so there were a lot of firsts. I didn’t have any dreams about carrying the ball or scoring touchdowns.

“I just wanted to play well if I got a chance to play at all.”

Cunningham started on special teams that night, so he took the field for the opening kickoff in front of thousands of white, screaming Alabama fans and awaited the whistle. What followed in the ensuing 60 minutes was far beyond what any of those fans, and Cunningham himself, expected.

Sam Cunningham carries the ball against the Alabama Crimson Tide. (Photo courtesy of USC Athletics.

“I wasn’t a starter on offense, but after several plays I got an opportunity to get in,” the now 64-year-old explains. “What was even more unbelievable is I got the opportunity to carry the ball. Fullbacks in that era did not carry the ball. I can’t tell you what was on the coaches’ minds that day, but I can tell you that I didn’t carry the ball very much the rest of that season.”

No, in fact, Sam ‘Bam’ Cunningham, the lightning bolt of the 1970 USC-Alabama showdown, would only carry the ball for 488 total yards in the entirety of the 1970 season. His two touchdowns in the victory accounted for nearly half of his rushing touchdowns for the year.

“They weren’t that silent on my first touchdown – it was only seven points – but after awhile it got pretty quiet in there,” Cunningham remembers with a smile. “We were bigger, faster, quicker and I’d have to say probably stronger too. We proved that that evening.”

Whatever the USC coaching staff saw against Alabama to prompt them to play Cunningham like they did enabled the Trojans to take the lead and never look back. The sophomore fullback would finish the game with 135 yards and two touchdowns on just 12 carries. The Trojans decimated the Crimson Tide, before pulling their starters in the third quarter, and won the game 42-21.

“When you watch a football game from start to finish you have a pretty good idea which is the better team,” says Cunningham thoughtfully. “That’s what happened that night in Birmingham. They saw the truth.”

“Athletics has a way of showing you the truth…If you’re paying attention”

Despite what urban legend claims, Cunningham was not grandly introduced to the Alabama locker room after the game, but he did receive a polite and earnest congratulations from one of the winningest coaches in college football history. Bear Bryant met Cunningham, Jimmy Jones and Clarence Davis, USC’s all-black backfield, outside the locker room to compliment each on a game well-played, and the team set off back home to California.

The Trojans would finish the 1970 season 6-4-1, not an especially remarkable campaign for a team that started the year with such a resounding victory.

At this point in the story-telling Cunningham pauses.

“Not many people realize this, but as great as that 1970 team was because of what we did in that first game, we had our own racial issue on that team. That’s why we ended up being 6-4-1,” he says. An honest reminder that change – even on a team heralded as progressive and pioneering – doesn’t happen overnight. “We get to raise the banner for changing college football history, but we still had a fight amongst ourselves about black-white. We still had some issues that we had to work out.”

Cunningham would go on to win a national championship as a senior captain at USC in 1972. He was drafted in the first round (11th pick) of the 1973 NFL Draft by the Patriots and played for New England from 1973-79 and 1981-82. His legacy however, has mostly lived on in the change he and his teammates catalyzed in 1970.

In the 45 years since, the pendulum has swung emphatically to the other side. This fall, when the Crimson Tide played Auburn, 20 of the team’s 22 starters were African-American, something unthinkable to most Tide fans on the Saturday night that the Trojans came to town.

It wasn’t until many years later, after discussions with former teammates and Trojan fans, that Cunningham fully understood the implications of that game. For him, it’s a story and a triumph that belongs to the entire Trojan Family.

“Yeah, I played in the game and all the other guys on that team, but we played for the University of Southern California so the history belongs to this university and this athletic program.”

“It ain’t just me or them or even our team. It’s all of us. It’s a part of our history and our legacy. And it’s something to be proud of forever and ever.”

Randall Cunningham Jr. and Sam “Bam” Cunningham at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. (Photo courtesy of USC Athletics)

Just a few yards away from Cunningham, listening quietly, sits his nephew, Randall Cunningham Jr. The younger Cunningham is a freshman at USC this year, just starting his first season of collegiate track and field as a high jumper and hoping to play football soon as well. As the next generation of Cunningham embarks on his journey as a Trojan, his uncle is proud to have his legacy to share.

“That game is a part of Randall’s legacy too. At the end of the day he can smile and know his family was a part of something very, very special. And we were a part of that because we are a part of this. A part of USC.”

In large part what Sam Cunningham did on Saturday, September 12, 1970 was made possible by those who came before him, Brice Taylor and C.R. Roberts and Willie Wood and countless others. As the former fullback sits in the Coliseum and thinks about his career and those other Trojans who played on the same hallowed ground, he sees his story as a small piece of something much bigger than himself.

“It was going to happen whether it was us or somebody else,” Cunningham says with the shake of his head. “But for us to be that team, for us to be an important part of history that evening, that’s something I’m proud of. I didn’t know. I was just there to play football, to play as hard as I could and hoping my teammates were doing the same.”

“I didn’t’ know what that day meant at the time but looking back, it was something very special.”

Sam “Bam” Cunningham at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. (Photo courtesy of USC Athletics)

By Sam Bergstrom

>Read the original story on the USC Black History Month website.

>Read additional My USC stories here.