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Sam ‘Bam’ Cunningham, star fullback, dies at 71

Dec 29, 2017; Arlington, TX, USA; General overall view of the 2017 Cotton Bowl logo on the back of the helmet of Southern California Trojans long snapper Jake Olson at AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Dec 29, 2017; Arlington, TX, USA; General overall view of the 2017 Cotton Bowl logo on the back of the helmet of Southern California Trojans long snapper Jake Olson at AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Sam “Bam” Cunningham, a Southern California and New England Patriots fullback often cited as a positive force for the integration of football teams in the South, died Tuesday in Inglewood, Calif.

The cause of death was not yet known. He was 71.

Cunningham was an All-American for USC and was named the Rose Bowl MVP in January 1973, when he scored four touchdowns to lead the Trojans to a 42-17 win over Ohio State. That 1972-73 Trojans team went on to be named the unanimous national champion.

Earlier in his collegiate career, Cunningham helped USC pound Alabama 42-21 in the 1970 season opener by rushing for 135 yards and two touchdowns. The Crimson Tide varsity football team had not yet integrated, but did so the following season.

Longtime football coach Jerry Claiborne, an assistant on Bear Bryant’s staff at the time, went on to say, “Sam Cunningham did more for integration in 60 minutes than Martin Luther King did in 20 years.”

In a 2016 interview with the Los Angeles Times, Cunningham explained why he felt the truth was messier than that simple anecdote.

“That didn’t change how those white people thought of black people,” Cunningham said. “They were accepted because they could help their program win football games.”

Cunningham was the 11th overall pick in the 1973 NFL Draft by the Patriots and played his entire career for New England. He scored 43 rushing touchdowns in the NFL and remains the Patriots’ all-time rushing leader with 5,453 yards.

Cunningham was inducted into both the College Football Hall of Fame and the Patriots’ Hall of Fame in 2010.

He also was the older brother of longtime NFL quarterback Randall Cunningham.

“Extremely saddened by the loss of a college football legend,” USC head coach Clay Helton tweeted. “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.”

–Field Level Media