Sam Cunningham, USC and New England Patriots Legend, Dead at 71

by Suzanne Halliburton
Getty Images

Sam Cunningham, a defining player for both the USC Trojans and New England Patriots, died Tuesday. He was 71.

Millions of fans always referred to Cunningham by three names. You couldn’t cheer Sam Cunningham without the Bam. He bruised and dominated defenses on every level.

Cunningham was a beloved hero for the Southern California Trojans, helping to lead them to a national title in 1972. Sam Cunningham scored a record four touchdowns in the Rose Bowl to put an exclamation point on the victory over Ohio State.

USC announced the death of one of the most iconic stars in their athletic department history. Cunningham passed away in Inglewood, Calif.. No cause of death was provided.

On Twitter, the USC Football account wrote of Sam Cunningham:

“A true Trojan Legend. Rest in peace Sam “Bam” Cunningham. Our thoughts and prayers are with the entire Cunningham family.”

Sam Cunningham also played a huge role in helping integrate college football. In 1970, the Trojans featured an All Black backfield, the first time that had happened in major college football. Jimmy Jones was the quarterback — Cunningham and Clarence Davis were the halfbacks. USC traveled to Alabama to take on the Crimson Tide coached by Paul “Bear” Bryant in mid-September.

The Trojans were the first fully integrated team to ever play college football in the state. USC beat Alabama with ease, 42-21, with all six touchdowns scored by Black players. Cunningham rushed for 135 yards and two scores.

“Sam Cunningham did more to integrate Alabama in 60 minutes than Martin Luther King did in 20 years,” said Jerry Claiborne, an Alabama assistant coach.

The game is considered a defining moment in integrating college football. By the next season, Bryant signed Wilbur Jackson, the first Black player in Alabama history.

Patriots Selected Sam Cunningham in First Round of 1973 Draft

New England selected Sam Cunningham with the 11th overall pick of the 1973 draft. He’s still the leading rusher for the Patriots with 5,453 yards.

In 1978, Cunningham helped the Patriots set an NFL team rushing record. New England rushed for 3,165 yards for the standard that wasn’t broken until the Baltimore Ravens did so in 2019.

Cunningham spent all of his career with the Patriots. And after he learned of the star’s death, owner Robert Kraft called him one of his “favorite” players.

“We are deeply saddened to learn of yet another loss to the Patriots family this week and our hearts ache for Sam Cunningham’s family and all who are mourning his passing today” Kraft said. “Sam ‘Bam’ Cunningham was one of my favorite players throughout the ’70s and my sons all loved him. After I bought the team in 1994, it was my honor to welcome him back to the team on multiple occasions, recognizing him as a 50th anniversary team member and again for his induction into the Patriots Hall of Fame.

“As much as I admired him as a player, my affection for him only grew after spending time with him and learning more about him as a person,” Kraft said. “He made a tremendous impact, both on and off the field, and was beloved by his teammates. As a Patriots Hall of Famer, Sam’s legacy and contributions will be preserved and celebrated forever, but today his loss is felt with heavy hearts.”

Cunningham’s younger brother, Randall Cunningham, was a star quarterback for the Philadelphia Eagles.