In honor of Black History Month, Reign of Troy would like to take the time to pay tribute to those who skillfully and deftly carved their way into Trojan lore by overcoming what seemed like impossible-to-beat odds and paving the way for the landscape of college athletics that we all know and love today. To kick off, we will go back, waaay back, back to the 1970s to chronicle the legacy of one of USC’s—and all of college football’s, for that matter—most significant athletes: Sam “Bam” Cunningham.
Cunningham’s legacy is one that has been told over and over again throughout sports history, but it is one that never gets old. He was one of the many great full backs that have donned the cardinal and gold, but that’s not what makes him special. His broad upper body combined with a lithe, agile lower half brought him much praise from head coach John McKay, and he was an integral part of McKay’s I-formation. He was a letterman from 1970-72 an All-American from the ’72 season; he set the record for touchdowns scored in the 1973 Rose Bowl—a record that still stands today—and was the Rose Bowl Player of the Game. In 1992 he was inducted into the Rose Bowl Hall of Fame, and in 2010, the College Football Hall of Fame.
Still though, this is not entirely why Cunningham is worthy of recognition.
Sam “Bam” Cunningham is the man because of what he did to completely revolutionize college football, and it all happened during his freshman year at ‘SC in 1970 against the University of Alabama Crimson Tide. Before the game, the South was still very much so segregated, but after the 42-21 beat down that USC delivered the Tide—which was spearheaded by Cunningham himself—the teams in what is now the SEC would get a lot darker in complexion.
To be sure, Sam “Bam” was not the first African-American to suit up in college football but one could argue that was certainly one of, if not THE, most important one. It was his fierce, dominant play over Alabama’s all-white squad that encouraged Alabama’s prolific head coach Paul William “Bear” Bryant to lobby for African-Americans to be recruited by Alabama. Were it not for this game, who knows how long it would’ve taken for the South to integrate collegiate football, and how many greats we would be without.
But it should also be noted that at the time, athletics were not integrated because it was the “right” or “fair” thing to do. On the contrary, it happened because white coaches saw black athletes as their ticket to championships. The attitude was more of, “We gotta get us one”, more than it was “African-Americans deserve to play, too.” As a result, black athletes were still seen as more of commodities than as actual people. Cunningham was fortunate enough to spend his collegiate career in California, a state that has always been more racially tolerant than others. This is not to say that he didn’t experience any discrimination, but to say that I was significantly less blatant and less painful than what athletes in the South would have experience. Back then, black athletes were often not allowed to stay in the same hotel room as their white teammates, and often times the teammates didn’t even want the black player on the team in the first place. That first wave of black athletes to step boldly over the color barrier faced challenges and hardships that most of us born after the 1980s cannot even imagine.
Today, athletes like Reggie Bush (pre-scandal years), Mark Ingram, LaMichael James and many others have had the pleasure of being loved and revered by all football fans across the country. Their images don the walls of young boys playing Pop Warner football, kids of all ethnicities that aspire to get to the collegiate level and be like their heroes. Their road to stardom has been paved smooth by the blood, sweat, and bravery in the face of hatred that were laid down by men who came generations before them. Because of Sam “Bam” Cunningham and others, then landscape of NCAA will forever more be one comprised of athletes who have earned their right to represent their school of choice, regardless of what they look like.
And every member of Trojan Nation can relish in the fact that it was one of our own that helped make this possible.
Fight On Forever, Sam “Bam” Cunningham!