“This here’s what a football player looks like."
The night they drove old Dixie down
And all the bells were ringin’
The night they drove old Dixie down
And all the people were singin’
They went, “Na, na, na, na, na, na. . . .
—From “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” sung by Joan Baez
USC’s players were utterly drained, physically and emotionally, by the pressure valve being lifted, the turf, and the late-summer humidity. Outside of surgery, military training, and, of course, actual combat, they had just engaged in one of the most debilitating human exercises imaginable. They celebrated in fits and starts, and were doing so when Bear Bryant entered.
Bryant’s appearance caused more than a few eyes to follow him as he made his way into the room. Craig Fertig saw him, shook his hand, and welcomed him. The two spoke for a few moments. Fertig had an expression on his face that said, “You want what?”
The players watched this exchange.
“What’s goin’ on?” a few asked.
Then Fertig straightened up. Bryant hung back as Fertig walked over to where McKay was. Something was going on. A small drama of some kind.
“Coach Bryant wants to borrow Cunningham,” Fertig told McKay.
“What do you mean, ‘borrow’ him?” asked McKay. Then Bear approached McKay, as the Trojans looked on.
“Coach, could I borrow Sam Cunningham?” he asked.
“You mean for the remainder of the season?” quipped McKay. “Go ahead and take him.”
Bryant smiled as if to say, “Just give me an inch, Coach, and I’ll take a mile.”
McKay summoned big Sam Cunningham. He introduced Bryant to Sam and told him that the Alabama coach would like for Sam go with him for a few minutes. Cunningham had no idea what was up, either, but it seemed on the up and up.
Bryant thanked McKay and left with Cunningham. On McKay’s instructions, Fertig went with them. Cunningham, bare chested, followed Bryant out the door.
Bryant thanked Cunningham for coming with him. Fertig accompanied them, thinking that maybe some kind of sociological history was about to be made. The fact that Sam was black could not escape Fertig’s attention.
What happened next is in dispute. Some say they entered the Alabama locker room. Some say the exchange happened in the crowded hallway between the visitors’ and home lockers. Some say it never happened. The following story, which may not be 100 percent accurate, is rooted, like most myth and lore, in truth:
They entered the Alabama locker room. The mood was one of utter demoralization and despondency. Cunningham was instructed to stand on a bench. He towered above the all white Crimson Tide. He was still sweaty. He had deep bruises. There was still blood on his pants.
Bryant allegedly started off by referring to Sam as “this ol’ boy,” but corrected himself by changing his description to “this man,” or, according to others who claim to have been in the room, began the speech by gathering his team’s attention by starting off with, “Gentlemen.”
“This is Sam Cunningham, number 39,” Bryant told his team as they sat and looked up to Sam. “This man and his Trojan brothers,” a term Bryant believed in and did not use lightly because he knew and understood Marv Goux’s sincerity when he talked about “Trojan pride” and loyalty. “This team just ran us right out of the Legion Field,” he said—just as Goux had said they would.
Bryant is said to have told them to raise their heads and “open your eyes,” because “This here’s what a football player looks like.” Those words would symbolize everything that had happened. It would be what everybody would remember about that night.
The coach instructed every one of his players to shake the stunned Sam’s hand. There was no hesitation.
Scott Hunter, who had been humiliated but would come back strong like the champ he was, led the way. “Sam, you’re a [heck] of a running back,” he (allegedly) said.
As Cunningham stood shirtless in the middle of the room, he was the perfect example of grace, pride, and class, at that moment a vessel of God. Each player shook his hand, most looking him in the eye. There were smiles, gentle ribbing, and a lot of congratulations. Bryant had sanctified this moment, and as the billboard on the highway had demonstrated, the man walked on water around this neck of the woods. The Alabama players did not feel humiliated anymore. Many began to understand that they, too, were part of something.
Papadakis, a close friend of Cunningham to this day, was not in the room, but he has publicly described it in vivid terms many times in interviews and in numerous conversations.
“You have to understand,” said Papadakis, “that Sam Cunningham was a beautiful, and I mean a beautiful black man. You know the term ‘black is beautiful,’ which is what a lot of blacks were saying in those days? Sam was beautiful. He had been a decathlete. He was an Adonis. I’m Greek. The Greeks have always admired physical beauty and competition. It’s part of the Greek ideal. Sam embodied all of that.
“He was bare chested, still glistening with sweat. The very picture of a warrior, a Trojan warrior. He had muscles that just bulged, a big barrel chest, tight stomach. He was an absolute physical specimen. But Sam was naïve, too. He was a sophomore from Santa Barbara, fighting for his job three hours earlier, and now here he was being held up as the symbol of football to the pride of the South.
“History was being made, and he didn’t realize it. He had just destroyed the Crimson Tide. You can’t believe it—watch the tape—he just went right through the best that the state of Alabama had to offer."
Athletes have a code of respect, which is an important point. In 1956, after C.R. Roberts had done the same thing to Texas at Austin, the Longhorns congratulated him, but the fans continued to catcall him all the way off the field. A lot had changed in 14 years, however. If one were to analyze American history, and maybe even human history, the 14 years that separated C.R.’s game from Sam’s saw some of the greatest social change ever.
From the mid-1950s to 1970, and especially in the ensuing years, people, not just politics, governments, and militaries, had changed. It was a truly societal revolution, which despite the many good things that emerged out of it, some argue had happened too much too soon. There was official school de-segregation, followed by John Kennedy’s assassination, the civil rights movement, the Great Society, Vietnam, the anti-war movement, the free speech movement, the Black Muslim movement, the feminist movement, the gay liberation movement, the beatnik movement, the hippie movement, the black militant movement, and now the actual de-segregation movement was about to happen. Not a Supreme Court ruling, as in Brown vs. Board of Education. Not National Guard protection. Not President Kennedy ordering Governor Barnett to enforce federal legislation in Mississippi. Not a speech or protest march.
This was something that everybody could believe in. Real change. Change of the heart. The best kind of change.
So what had happened in those 14 years? The ’60s had happened.
The athletes who have a universal “code of respect” for each other had lived through the ’60s. They had been eight, nine, or ten years old when the decade started. In 1964, many were in junior high school, old enough to understand the world around them. Their high school and college years had paralleled years of enormous unrest. They lived in a new age of television and mass communications. They lived in a brave, modern new world, the South having been transformed by federal works projects instituted by Franklin Roosevelt, such as the Tennessee Valley Authority, since the 1930s. They were college-educated leaders of the future, not backwoods hicks, and they respected Sam Cunningham.
“Since the Alabama team could relate to Sam as a football player,” Papadakis said, “they could understand the context of Sam as a man, because they were all football players. We all strive for the same thing on the field. Competition, especially in America, is where we determine what the truth is, where we separate the men from the boys. These white players could never relate to protests or speeches. But they could relate to football.” God works in mysterious ways.
This scene has been touted as Holy Grail within the Trojan family for decades and by many others, including Papadakis and possibly Cunningham, who has remained somewhere between vague, coy, sure it happened, or sure it did not, depending on who you ask (and this includes Southern sportswriters and former USC teammates).
Hunter, who allegedly complimented Sam in the locker room, insists none of it happened—not the Bryant speech and certainly not his handshaking. Hunter’s attitude, some contend, is “negative,” but a lengthy interview with him revealed that this is entirely untrue. Hunter says that the event did not happen but that “it should have.” He had been to Vietnam on an all-star tour with black players, was happy to see integration, and expressed great admiration for Dr. King because he recognized that Bryant’s words mirrored the civil rights leaders’.
“If I admired this man [Bryant],” Hunter says, “and he’s saying the same things as Dr. King, then do I pick and choose, and not admire King? No.”
Told this, Craig Fertig, who previously thought of Hunter as “negative” and “sour,” could only say, “Wow, that changes my whole interpretation of Scott Hunter.”
Nevertheless, as Hunter expressed, just like Papadakis's claim that he used Greek philosophy to "talk his teammates down" from bringing guns to the stadium - whether it happened exactly that way or not - it should have!
Talking to the Alabama players and the coaches, sportswriters, others—nobody remembers this Bryant speech about [Sam] Cunningham being “what a football player looks like.” The Mobile Press-Register's Neal McCready tried to clear this up. As for Cunningham, he told McCready, “I don’t want to be the one who said it didn’t happen.”
Craig Fertig was not in the Alabama locker room. A couple of coaches said it didn’t happen. Clem Gryska, an honorable man, had a very good point, and so did Scott Hunter. They both said, “The players were ready for integration.” Kenny Stabler said as far back as the 1960s, the players had no objection. But what would have been the point of bringing Cunningham into that locker room?
“One of the great mythological stories” is how longtime sportswriter Allen Barra referred to the incident. “Something happened, but not in the way it is described. . . . Generally something is there on which the legend is based, but it is almost never exactly that way. But there is always a nugget or kernel of truth. Why would not a single Alabama player say it did not happen? Somebody would say it happened.
“If it happened to make such an impression, why did it not make an impression, at least on the Alabama players who it was purported to have been for? Why didn’t Bryant talk about this? Bryant biographer John Underwood did not recall him saying anything about this story. All that being said, under the category of double hearsay, journalist Al Browning of the Tuscaloosa News was a good friend of Bryant’s who may even have worked for Bryant and wrote a book called I Remember Bear Bryant.
“In the 1990s—Al died around 2000—Diane McWhorter, Browning, and I were at a bar. Browning told us that the lockers at Legion Field were really close, cramped and right next to the hallway area, which led straight into another locker room. Browning thinks what happened is there was a bunch of people from the university administration, who really needed an object lesson, and who got it with this game.
“In all this tumult, and McKay said this in his biography, Bryant went in the locker room. It was known to have been set up by Bryant, and he knew what would happen. Bryant idolized Bud Wilkinson. Bryant’s Kentucky team had played Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl. After the game, Wilkinson went in the ‘Bama locker room to congratulate Babe Parilli. Bryant determined he would do that in the future when the time was right and make the best possible impression. Tom Clements said he did the same thing after the Sugar Bowl following the 1973 season, in a game that determined the national championship for Notre Dame.
“Bryant most likely went up to Sam and said something complimentary, but if he brought Sam into the Alabama locker room, they would have remembered it. There would be no reason not to. Browning said there were guys in the hallway, including some old World War II guys who had resisted.
“A couple of guys in the Alabama administration were openly against change. Browning said they were in the hall. Bear grabbed Sam, put his arm around him, and might have taken him in the hall, not the Alabama locker room. The fact that Sam may not remember it exactly as it is described—on a stool in front of the Alabama team—that is not unusual. If he put him on a stool, that is too eerily close to a slave market. If they stepped 10 or 12 feet into that hallway, next to and in front of men he does not know, there may be no way to prove it, but when a story like that happens, this is plausible. But in the locker room before the players? If he were in that hallway, and if the door to the locker is open, then he can see Alabama players undressing a few feet away. But it is crowded; it is loud. Think about being in a crowd, at a game, a rock concert. You cannot tell what somebody is saying just a few feet away.”
“I talked to Sam about it, and he said it kind of happened, but not the way it was explained,” said Sam Dickerson.
“. . . There’s a lot I don’t remember about some of those early days,” Cunningham says of the event and its immediate aftermath. “It was 35 years ago, remember. But I really think I would remember it if it happened.”
Papadakis, despite mountains of evidence to the contrary, claims that he witnessed the event that Cunningham, the central player in it, cannot recall. He wrote a film treatment filled with colorful verbiage of the supposed happenings in the ’Bama dressing room; none of which was remembered by Sam, the Alabama players or coaches, or even Craig Fertig. Fertig escorted Sam when Bryant came to “borrow him,” but he did not actually see it or claim to see it. It is possibly he was schmoozing in the hallway, which was his wont.
Loel Schrader swore that he saw it, but in 2006 when reports of its mythology became increasingly obvious, even he backed off his original assertions. Papadakis claimed to Don Yaeger that the legend was “on Alabama’s shoulders. It didn’t come from us.” This does not particularly make sense. Bryant never mentioned it. The ex-players are as adamant that it did not happen as they possibly could be. It really appears that it was McKay, probably exaggerating in the manner of an Irish storyteller drinking whiskey on the banquet circuit over the years, who told it so many times that he believed it. He certainly told Papadakis that it happened that way, and John chose to understandably believe his coach. John McKay claimed to have heard many times from his father, indicating it got better over time.
Bryant knew how to lose. He talked to Cunningham; no one denies this, but there are not many witnesses. If it was anybody, it was some California sportswriter. Fertig says he was outside the door. Loel Schrader says he was at the door. Somehow, could it be they were at the door to one of those locker rooms and saw the hallway scene, mistaking it for a locker-room scene? There is some discrepancy between Schrader and Fertig, one being outside the door and not seeing it, the other at the door and witnessing it. Some saw it from a distance and thought it happened that way. Add to this excitement; adrenaline; passage of time; faulty memories; a crowded, loud hallway that is hard to tell is different from a locker room; a door that might have looked into a locker room. . . .
If one walks out of the visitors’ locker room, one can see right in that other locker room. It is so crowded, that might be exactly what happened. The Alabama people "in the know" cannot conceive that Bryant would have humiliated his players and coaches, but rather he was doing it for the administration. He was not going to just write them off to Governor Wallace. But why did Bryant not talk about this? He was sticking it to the reactionaries, but he would not brag about it.
One cannot underestimate the importance of this game and of Bryant’s opening up opportunities. This was just one of many signs of change throughout America, directly attributable to Bryant, the 1970 game, and his policies. Everything was influenced by Paul “Bear” Bryant.
The exact details of this event remain a mystery to this day. John McKay repeated the story for years, probably embellishing it, but of course he was not in that room. Nobody ever disputed him or told him that what he was saying might not be 100 percent accurate. Over time his message became an accepted fact. He never had any reason to doubt that the essential story, embellished or not, was true. Many, many others associated with USC repeated the story, most notably Marv Goux and Craig Fertig. Writers like Loel Schrader of the Long Beach Press-Telegram, who would later create The USC Report web site, spread the message. USC’s sports information director at that time, Don Andersen, and broadcaster Tom Kelly enthusiastically repeated the story in many venues.
It is important to note, however, that this mythological event did not gain major public credence for years, maybe even for more than a decade. Many never heard the story until Tom Kelly repeated it in the 1988 Trojan Video Gold, documenting USC’s football tradition.
Oddly, Sam Cunningham distanced himself from the event and his school. He went to New England, where he played for a decade. He never spoke to John Hannah about it, even though the two then-teammates had opposed each other in the 1970 game. Cunningham was miffed at USC when they told him that his younger brother, Randall, would not be the starting quarterback in the early 1980s. Coach John Robinson invested his hopes in Sean Salisbury, a major blue chipper from the San Diego area, instead. Randall chose UNLV, where he became an All-American and later an All-Pro in Philadelphia. Salisbury was a bust, or close to it, and his failures ushered in a long down period in USC gridiron annals.
Sam faded in memory as a Trojan legend. Many others, such as O.J. Simpson, Marcus Allen, Anthony Davis, Mike Garrett, Pat Haden, and Lynn Swann, along with Tom Seaver, Tom Selleck, and John Naber, maintained far more colorful public personas. Many would have a high profile in broadcasting or acting, a tradition at a place long considered “Hollywood’s school.” Before the NCAA came along to regulate such things, USC football players had made extra money as Roman soldiers, gladiators, Napoleon’s Grand Army, Biblical legions, and other large-scale opportunities for extras in the classic epics of DeMille, Huston, Ford, and Mayer. According to Los Angeles magazine, 1920s "it girl" Clara Bow had satisfied her insatiable sexual appetite in wild orgies with the USC football team, which included Marion Morrison (later John Wayne). Access to beautiful Hollywood actresses and opportunity had played no small role in Howard Jones's recruitment of the players who made the Trojans a major power. By the 1960s, USC was making its mark in Hollywood through more legitimate means. Their film school became the best of its kind in the nation, and it remains so to this day.
Sam Cunningham was a quiet type who receded into private life after a career three 3,000 miles removed from his college exploits. Anybody who looks back on events in their own lives—10, 20, 35 years—is generally unable to recall events in crystal clear detail. It is highly possible that Sam’s memory is not clear, or that people’s descriptions of what happened have impacted on his mind as actual events. There is no reason to believe Sam has made up any of this; and it appears that now, with disputes coming from the ’Bama side, he is unable to give a more certain account than his vague memories. In media interviews with those who simply assume the story is true, Sam agrees with the premise. But whether this is actual memory or post-historical editing is unclear. His friend and former teammate, Rod McNeill, got wind of the 2003 Mobile Press-Register interview with Sam, in which he stated, “I don’t want to be the one who said it didn’t happen.”
“I asked him if it happened,” McNeill says. “He says it never happened.”
None of the Alabama players and coaches who were in the locker room said it happened. Alabama football historian Allen Barra offered the highly plausible explanation that it may have happened in the hallway, not the locker room, allowing for Sam to recall Bryant’s speech, an object lesson not for the team but the reactionary old racists who made up alumni and administration and who were crowding that hallway. Sam very well may have seen Alabama players dressing through the open door a few yards away.
But none of this really matters, because as Scott Hunter says, “it should have happened.” The fact that such a famous public event, so publicly quoted and now publicly disputed, could occur almost lends a spiritual quality to it, in that religious visions and epiphanies throughout history—events that supposedly happened, yet different people saw it differently—makes one wonder whether the hand of God was at play in that locker room.
After all, the South, as University of Alabama professor E. Culpepper Clark said, was a place in which the “blood was hot.” Violence, hatred, and real terror had engulfed the region and had shown very little sign of abating prior to September 12, 1970. Professors, sportswriters, historians, and political pundits can try to put their spin on it, but the breathtaking change that occurred after that night has a Biblical feel to it. It is in this theological analysis that one begins to see that Sam—naive, beautiful, wise, a human man of faulty memory—may just have been a vessel, not merely a fullback.
The Bible describes all sorts of people as being God’s vessels. These include sinners, tax collectors, and prostitutes. 2,000 years later, it certainly seems plausible that He would have chosen a fullback. However, Sam’s former teammates—pro and college—do not describe Sam as an average, sinful college athlete. To a man, they describe a remarkable young individual. Young athletes are notoriously narcissistic, vain, and hedonistic. The world is theirs for the taking, and they take it without asking a lot of questions or extending a lot of gratitude. As they say, youth is wasted on the young. When speaking to these people in later years, maturity and life experience give them a sensible quality that they too often did not have in their youth.
But over and over again, teammates of Sam Cunningham’s—black and white, from USC and the Patriots—describe an incredible young man. Words like wise, Christian, loyal, and hero abound in almost endless praise. Cunningham hung out with a group of young black athletes at USC called The Big Five, which included Manfred Moore, Rod McNeill, and Charle Young. Conversations with these men, more than 30 years later, reveal guys who do not sound like ex-football players, but almost like prophets. Moore and Young, in particular, speak in a highly spiritual manner. Each man, who offered the same perspective without prompting, backs up lineman Dave Brown’s descriptions of a racially divided team that came together through Christian fellowship to have a perfect season in 1972. These do not sound like the kinds of scholarship athletes who too often make their presence known on college campuses with oversized bodies, undersized brains and overactive glands.
The events of 1970–72, starting with Cunningham’s game, the racial inclusion in the South that followed it, and the moral fellowship that overcame suspicion at USC, begin to reveal a mosaic that is faith-centered. On the field, the Trojans were average in 1970 and 1971, but 12–0 in ’72. Alabama was average in 1969 and 1970, but 11–1 in ’71. By delving deeper into the events that surrounded them—the game in Birmingham, their young lives, and the destinies of their units—a religious man very well might make the connection that Cunningham was not the only vessel of God’s work. When Dave Brown emerged as a leader presiding over Bible studies with increased attendance, the team went undefeated in 1972. As McNeill said, “his wonders never cease.”
Of those interviewed for this book, there are mixed interpretations of religion as it relates to this game and its effect on de-segregation. Dr. Culpepper Clark wouldn’t say that the hand of God guided the civil rights struggle, but he did use the term “miracle” when mentioning that, despite “the blood being hot,” a relatively small number of blacks were killed in the years since Emmett Till’s death in the mid-1950s.
However, Sam’s teammates, Manfred Moore and Charle’ Young in particular, sounded like tent revivalists in their descriptions of their friend, stating that he had been “chosen” by God. Despite Sam’s youth, he was consistently described as “spiritual . . . moral . . . wise.” Conversations with Tom Kelly, Dave Brown, J.K. McKay, Willie Brown, Jim Perry, John Vella, Rod McNeill and, of course, Moore and Young, reveal a definite pattern: USC was racially divided in 1970 and ’71, probably over the Jimmy Jones – Mike Rae quarterback issue, but when the team joined together in Brown’s Bible studies, they were victorious on the field.
Sam Cunningham, Craig Fertig, the Alabama players, coaches, and staff, were not the only people on the scene. The sportswriters were there, too, taking notes. Bryant could have kept them out, which was a common practice. But Bryant wanted them to see this.
At some point, another comment was made. Aside from Bear supposedly saying, to someone, “This here’s what a football player looks like,” another oft-quoted statement is remembered in connection with the game. The quote is this: “Sam Cunningham did more to integrate Alabama in 60 minutes than Martin Luther King had done in 20 years.”
Jerry Claiborne, one of Bryant’s assistant coaches, is credited with having said it. But Marv Goux also said it. He said Cunningham had done more to integrate the South in three hours than Martin Luther King had done in 20 years.
As for McKay, he repeated the “Cunningham did more than King” remark many times before his death in 2001. McKay normally did not qualify the remark, as in “Jerry Claiborne said it” or, “Marv Goux said it"; he just repeated it, as have numerous others until it has become a football article of faith.
Back in his own locker room, Cunningham is supposed to have told two other sophomores what Bryant said about him. The whole affair had by then taken on a religious tone, as if the words spoken and actions taken were Gospel, those who heard and saw witnesses. As for Tody Smith, he was all smiles. Nobody in the state was more relieved than he was.
Outside Legion Field, a throng of 3,000 black fans greeted USC. Their cheers had swelled throughout the game, as they listened on radios. They were cheering, singing, and crying. They had just witnessed, or at least heard, the turning of the Tide.
There was sustained cheering until long after the game. Clarence Davis introduced his teammates to his Alabama relatives, including his Uncle Claude. Most of the USC players said they had never seen so many people after a game. Black fans lined the road to cheer USC as they drove out. They held candles and sang songs.
105 years before that game, General Robert E. Lee had surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant’s forces at the Appomattox Courthouse in Virginia. If that moment could have been engendered with one-50th of the goodwill that, at least according to lore, existed in the Alabama locker room on this night, a great nation might have been spared an additional century of recriminations.
A race of people, brought over to a new world many hailed as the Promised Land, had been made to toil endlessly because of their physical power. Now, those same attributes, combined with a new pride honed out of a century of citizenship and struggle, had pushed open the last door to earthly salvation.
Something else had happened that day, although it had been happening for the better part of 10 years prior. Bryant’s “Cage”-driven game was replaced by the speed and skill game that McKay emphasized. Bryant would adapt the recruiting of not just black athletes, but athletes, instead of position players. Some coaches, like Michigan’s Bo Schembechler and Ohio State’s Woody Hayes, would insist on their “three yards and a cloud of dust” offenses throughout the 1980s. They would consistently find themselves on the losing end of Rose Bowl games against a variety of fast-paced Pac 8 (late Pac 10) teams.
In 2003, a TV program called Songs of Our Success, hosted by Tony McEwing, said, “30 years ago, USC faced their toughest opponent ever, segregation. It was a game that changed the Deep South.
“It had the look and sounds of any ordinary football game, but this was no ordinary game,” said McEwing. “If any game could be called the ‘collegiate game of the century,’ this was it. None of the players, the coaches, or the crowd could have predicted the profound impact it would have on history and on the Deep South.”
“If at the time I’d known how significant it was going to be, I’d’ve paid a lot more attention,” said Cunningham. “I was just a freshman riding on the plane to play my first football game, and from the game history was made.”
“USC had the only all black backfield in college football at the time,” McEwing continued. “Big deal, you say? In 1970, it was a very big deal. . . . The Trojans were the first fully integrated team to play in Alabama, but Cunningham was oblivious to what would happen.”
“It had a wide-ranging effect from that evening that is still being felt today,” said Cunningham. “Coach Bryant wanted me to come to their locker room, and he said, ‘This is what a football player looks like.’ Which really probably didn’t sit very well with me, because I’m a football player too, but what he was trying to impress was, ‘I believe there’s a change in the wind and this is how it’s gonna be.’ ”
“Coach Bryant reportedly told his coaches that he would begin to recruit black players,” said McEwing.
“You never would have thought it would happen,” said Sam. “You think it would happen through protest, but we were just playing a simple game of football. From those 60 minutes of football, years and years of history had gone; and we changed it for the better.”
“We exploded at the start of the game,” said John Papadakis. “I was the defensive signal caller and middle linebacker, and we had predominantly black players on defense and the best black signal caller in the country.
“I knew when we went out to the bus and saw literally thousands of black people, carrying Bibles, thanking us and singing hymns, I knew something was up. I knew it in the third quarter, when Clarence Davis scored a touchdown, and there were cheers outside of the stadium, silence inside of the stadium. You could hear the black people on the outside yelling and screaming for the Trojans, because they knew how important it was just for us to be there.”
“It just made the opportunity that much more special for USC players to represent something that had happened in such great fashion years ago,” said Pete Carroll regarding the 2003 opener at Auburn, in which he invited Cunningham and Papadakis to make the trip and speak to the team, “and we felt it was our responsibility as USC to live up to it, to the standards that Sam had set that night.”
Carroll, who hails from the San Francisco Bay Area, was quoted in the 1980s in the Marin Independent Journal, “I didn’t follow Cal or Stanford. I grew up rooting for John McKay and USC. I loved USC after Sam ‘Bam’ Cunningham ended segregation in the 1970 USC–Alabama game.”
“You know, I keep hearing and I explain to kids,” said Sam, “because none of them were born when I played that game. I try to explain to them that for the little time that you’re out there, to do the best you can because you never know what’s going to come up.”
Papadakis and Cunningham shed further light (or confusion, depending on your point of view) on the subject in the 2003 interview with the Mobile Press-Register’s Neal McCready.
“Gentlemen, this ol’ boy, I mean, this man and his Trojan brothers, just ran [you] right out of your own house,” Bryant is quoted as saying by Papadakis in the story. “Raise your heads and open your eyes. This is what a football player looks like.”
In the September 5, 2000, edition of USC Report, McKay told senior writer Loel Schrader that the story is true.
“To his players,” McKay told USC Report, “Paul pointed to Cunningham and said, ‘Gentlemen, this is what a football player looks like.’ ”
“I already told you I don’t remember a lot,” Cunningham said, appearing to backtrack to McCready. “I don’t remember clearly. I’m trying to think back and remember. Coach Bryant was very polite and very, very strong in his belief that we did something special that evening. For the sake of history, I was taken in. I kind of think it didn’t happen. I think I would remember, but I don’t want to be the guy who said it didn’t happen.”
“There were so many people I couldn’t count them [after the game],” Papadakis said in the story. “It was late at night and all of the black people from the neighborhood were outside the stadium. By the time we left, they had gathered and they were singing hymns and beating on the bus. They were hitting Tody Smith with a Bible, saying, ‘Thank you. Thank you for coming here.’ They were cheering outside the stadium when USC made a touchdown in the third or fourth quarter. We could hear them.”
“It was a very strong domination in that game by Southern Cal, and it was a great game by Cunningham,” is all that current Alabama athletic director, and then assistant coach, Mal Moore said in the same story. “It was evident that Coach Bryant already planned to integrate his team. This helped him.”
“I’m proud of being a part of the team that had a hand in it,” Cunningham said. “It was going to happen eventually. I’m comfortable with it.”
While the Trojans were showering and celebrating, L.A. Times sports columnist Jim Murray and beat writer Jeff Prugh were working. They were under deadline pressure but were able to deliver stories worthy of the occasion.
The September 13, 1970 L.A. Times sports page featured a photo of quarterback Jimmy Jones throwing a pass, next to the headline “Trojans Fall on Alabama; Bruins’ Rally Defeats OSU.” Dwight Chapin had missed history covering UCLA quarterback Dennis Dummit’s performance in leading his team to a 14–9 win at Oregon State.
Prugh wrote, “It was a night when stars of Cardinal and Gold fell on Alabama. And the brightest star of them all—as USC’s Trojans blasted once mighty Alabama, 42–21, Saturday night—was Sam Cunningham, a towering rookie fullback who runs like a locomotive.”
Jim Murray is the finest sportswriter of all time. Of all the columns he ever wrote, however, the one printed on the entire top of the September 13, 1970, L.A. Times sports page remains the best of his career. Whether Murray came up with the headline is not known. Whoever did deserves the Congressional Medal of Freedom. It stated, “Hatred Shut Out as Alabama Finally Joins the Union.”
The article read, in part:
BIRMINGHAM—OK, you can put another star in the Flag.
On a warm and sultry night when you could hear train whistles hooting through the piney woods half county away, the state of Alabama joined the Union. They ratified the Constitution, signed the Bill of Rights. They have struck the Stars and Bars. They now hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal in the eyes of the Creator.
Our newest state took the field against a mixed bag of hostile black and white American citizens without police dogs, tear gas, rubber hoses or fire hoses. They struggled fairly without the aid of their formidable ally, Jim Crow.
Bigotry wasn’t suited up for a change. Prejudice got cut from the squad. Will you all please stand and welcome the sovereign state of Alabama to the United States of America? It was a long time coming, but we always knew we’d be 50 states strong some day, didn’t we? Now, we can get on with it. So chew a carpet, George Wallace. . . . Get out of our way. We’re trying to build a country to form a democracy.
The game? Shucks, it was just a game. You’ve seen one, you’ve seen ‘em all . . . Hatred got shut out, that’s the point. Ignorance got shut out, that’s the point. Ignorance fumbled on the goal line. Stupidity never got to the line of scrimmage. The big lie got tackled in the end zone . . .
Murray would go on to write that the previous time he had been in Alabama, the only black man in the stadium was carrying towels. But “a man named Martin Luther King” thought that if you paid for a seat on the bus, one ought to be able to sit in it. The only thing white folks in the state cared about was “beating Georgia Tech."
Murray pointed out that the citizens of Alabama took their football so seriously that they realized that if they wanted to play in the big time, it would require integration. Otherwise, instead of invites to all the best bowl games, they would continue to be relegated to the Bluebonnet Bowl.
“And,” wrote Murray, “if I know football coaches, you won’t be able to tell Alabama by the color of their skin much longer. You’ll need a program just like the Big 10."
He was prescient, but remarkably few others were. In the mid-1960s, Murray had written scathing columns about Alabama. He disputed their "national" championships, stating that for a team to attain such status, not only did they have to win their bowl game (which 'Bama had failed to do after finishing number one in the AP poll prior to an Orange Bowl loss to Texas in 1965), but they had to play a "national" schedule that included games against integrated teams north of the Mason-Dixon Line, not merely segregated college programs in segregated portions of America.
In his September 13, 1970 column, however, Murray recognized what Coach Bryant was now trying to do, something even the likes of McKay, Marv Goux, Sam Cunningham, and the fans in the stands did not fully understand.
Causes Steven Travers Supports
Conservative, Christian, USC, American patriotism