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Sam Cunningham (1950–2021), NFL star who inspired college football integration

by Linnea Crowther

Sam Cunningham was a football player who helped break down racial barriers at the University of Southern California before excelling with the New England Patriots.

Changing the face of college football

Cunningham joined the USC Trojans in 1970, becoming part of an integrated team with an all-Black backfield that was unusual for the time. In his first college game, the Trojans traveled to the University of Alabama, where they beat the Crimson Tide 42 to 21, thanks in part to Cunningham’s two touchdowns. The game is credited as a watershed moment in the integration of college sports, convincing Alabama coach Bear Bryant as well as others that Black players had a place on their teams. Cunningham went on to an outstanding college football career, named an All-American in 1972. In 1973, he scored four touchdowns at the Rose Bowl, a record that still stands today. He became a member of the College Football Hall of Fame.

Patriots career

Cunningham was chosen by the Patriots in the first round of the 1973 draft, and he played for the team for his entire nine-season NFL career. He was a Pro Bowl selection in 1978, the year when the team set an NFL record for rushing with 3,165 yards. He set a Patriots rookie record for rushing, with 516 yards in his first season, and he went on to become the leading rusher in Patriots history, with 5,453 yards. In 2010, Cunningham was inducted into the Patriots Hall of Fame.

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Cunningham on the groundbreaking Alabama game

“I didn’t go into any game looking to change history, even though history has a tendency to be changed by things of that nature. I always tried to play to the best of my ability, and that’s what I did that evening. I was put in the right spot and got touched by the hand of God.” —from a 2021 interview for the Santa Barbara Independent

Tributes to Sam Cunningham

Full obituary: The New York Times

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