Former USC and New England Patriots RB Sam Cunningham dies at 71

Former USC and New England Patriots running back Sam Cunningham has died. He was 71.

USC announced Cunningham's death Tuesday afternoon. Cunningham is one of the best rushers in Trojan football history and was a member of the 1972 USC team that was named national champions.

A true Trojan Legend. Rest in peace Sam “Bam” Cunningham.

Our thoughts and prayers are with the entire Cunningham family.

— USC Football (@USC_FB) September 7, 2021

Cunningham rushed 337 times for 1,579 yards and 23 touchdowns over three years at USC. He scored 13 TDs in 1972 and scored four touchdowns in USC’s 42-17 rout of Ohio State in the 1973 Rose Bowl. Only Michigan's Neil Snow (5 in 1902) has more rushing TDs in a single Rose Bowl game. 

Cunningham was a starter for the 1970 USC football team that also featured Black quarterback Jimmy Jones and Black running back Clarence Davis.

That USC team traveled to play Alabama on Sep. 12. It was the first major college football game in Alabama that included a fully integrated team. USC won the game 42-21 over Bear Bryant's all-white Alabama team and all six of the Trojans’ touchdowns were scored by Black players. That legendary game is considered one of the biggest turning points in the integration of major college football in the modern era.

Cunningham rushed for 135 yards and scored two TDs in that game. USC finished the season No. 15 in the AP Top 25. Jerry Claiborne, a former Bryant assistant who also was a head coach at three different schools, famously said that Cunningham "did more to integrate Alabama in 60 minutes than Martin Luther King did in 20 years."

The 1971 Alabama team was the first Crimson Tide team to feature Black players.

First-round draft pick of the Patriots

Cunningham was taken at No. 11 by the New England Patriots in the 1973 NFL draft. He played in nine seasons with the Patriots from 1973-1982 as he missed the 1980 season because of a contract dispute.

His best season as a pro came in his second year with the team as he rushed 166 times for 811 yards and scored nine touchdowns in 1974. While he rushed for 1,015 yards in 1977, he did so on 104 more carries and scored just four touchdowns.

The older brother of longtime NFL QB Randall Cunningham who played for the Philadelphia Eagles and Minnesota Vikings, Sam Cunningham finished his NFL career with 1,385 carries for 5,453 yards and 49 total touchdowns. 

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