Sam Cunningham, who had a legendary college football career and played for the Patriots for a decade, has died at the age of 71.
A bruising, 6-foot-3, 226-pound running back, Cunningham is best remembered for his spectacular performances in college at USC, where he was named Most Valuable Player of the 1973 Rose Bowl for scoring four touchdowns as USC clinched the national championship with a victory over Ohio State.
Perhaps most significantly, the African-American Cunningham turned in a dominant performance in USC’s 42-21 win against an all-white Alabama team in 1970. That game was said to help integrate Southern college football, as it convinced many football coaches and fans in the Deep South that if they remained segregated, their teams could not compete against the best integrated teams.
Cunningham was proud of his performance against Alabama but had mixed feelings about how that game was remembered, telling the Los Angeles Times years later that if he helped integrate Southern football, it wasn’t necessarily for the right reasons.
“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.”
The Patriots selected Cunningham with the 11th overall pick in the 1973 NFL draft, and he played his entire career in New England, retiring after the 1982 season. He finished his NFL career with 1,385 carries for 5,453 yards and 43 touchdowns.
Among Cunningham’s survivors is his younger brother, former NFL quarterback Randall Cunningham.