USC football great Sam ‘Bam’ Cunningham, a key figure in a game considered a turning point in college sports, has died at age 71 in Inglewood, the university announced Tuesday.
Cunningham was an All-American fullback at USC and College Football Hall of Famer who went on to become the New England Patriots' franchise leader in rushing.
A cause of death was not provided in the school’s announcement.
"The All-American fullback, Rose Bowl MVP and College Football Hall of Famer, whose performance in USC's 1970 win at Alabama has often been credited with helping integrate Southern football, died on Tuesday in Inglewood," USC's athletics department said in a tweet.
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Cunningham was a sophomore in 1970 when USC took on an all-white Alabama team on the road. USC not only became the first fully integrated team to play in Alabama, but also crushed Bear Bryant's Crimson Tide on its home turf in Birmingham. Cunningham finished the game with 135 yards and two touchdowns in the Trojans' dominant 42-21 victory.
The game marked a turning point in the integration of Southern college football. Cunningham was proud of his performance, but expressed mixed feelings about how the game was remembered.
“That didn’t change how those white people thought of Black people,” Cunningham told the Los Angeles Times years later. “They were accepted because they could help their program win football games.”
In 1973, the bruising fullback earned MVP honors in the Rose Bowl, scoring four touchdowns as USC won the national title over Ohio State.
Cunningham was inducted into the USC Athletic Hall of Fame in 2001 and the College Football Hall of Fame in 2010.
"Extremely saddened by the loss of a college football legend,'' USC head coach Clay Helton wrote on Twitter Tuesday. "As good a man as he was a player. Thank you Sam for being the example of what a Trojan should be. You will be missed but never forgotten.''
Former Trojan quarterback Matt Leinart also paid tribute.
"Not just a great football player but an incredible man,'' Leinart wrote. "Really had a huge influence on my team at USC. Loved when I got to see him. RIP to a legend.''
In the 1973 NFL Draft, New England selected Cunningham with the No. 11 overall pick. He spent his entire career with the Patriots, retiring after the 1982 season.
He finished his pro career with 1,385 carries for 5,453 yards and 43 touchdowns.
After his football career, Cunningham worked as a landscape contractor in Southern California. He is survived by his wife, Cine, and daughter, Samahndi, a USC graduate, as well as brothers Randall, Bruce and Anthony.
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