Sam Cunningham Dies at 71; Fostered Integration on the Football Field

by 24USATVSept. 10, 2021, 9 a.m. 21
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Sam Cunningham, a fullback for the integrated University of Southern California football team that in 1970 trounced Coach Bear Bryant’s all-white Alabama squad, died on Tuesday at his home in Inglewood, Calif. He was 71.

His wife, Cine (Ivery) Cunningham, confirmed his death but did not cite a cause.

Cunningham, a sophomore, was playing his first game for U.S.C. on Sept. 12, 1970, at Legion Field in Birmingham. For the Trojans it was a journey into the Deep South to a state that had been governed, and would be again, by the fiery segregationist George C. Wallace.

Cunningham, whose nickname was Bam, formed an all-Black backfield with the quarterback Jimmy Jones and the tailback Clarence Davis. Cunningham, a backup player, was the game’s unexpected star, running for 135 yards on 12 carries and scoring two touchdowns in the Trojans’ 42-21 victory.

For Alabama, it was a humiliating loss on the way to a 6-5-1 record — but it was also a lesson to Bryant that his Crimson Tide would falter in the future without Black players. He knew that already, having recruited Wilbur Jackson, a running back. But as a freshman, Jackson was not allowed to play for the varsity and watched the game at the stadium.

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