SAM "BAM" CUNNINGHAM
1970 - 1972
I was born in Santa Barbara and went to Santa Barbara High School. Marv Goux was born there, and went to the same high school and junior high that I went to. I think Santa Barbara is the second oldest high school in the state of California. I played football, ran track and played basketball for the Dons. I did the decathlon at USC but I was not really on the track team.
I was recruited by many programs, and I took many trips; to Michigan State, Oregon, Cal, Arizona State. Frank Kush, the coach at ASU, was crazy. Colorado recruited me but I did not take that trip, I was too tired. I got a letter from Alabama. I'm sure Coach Bryant would have used me if I'd decided to be the guy to come there, but it was a tough situation for black athletes in the Deep South, so yeah they tried for me, but I wasn't going to go there.
Marv Goux was the main recruiter for this area, but he did not have to do a whole lot of recruiting for me. He had known me, his brother knew me, Santa Barbara was not very big, maybe 60,000 people and three high schools; a small Catholic school plus a couple public schools. At that time and place, my parents knew what I did before I even got home.
I graduated from high school in 1969, and the first time I met Coach John McKay was at dinner with him. He was funny, different from my high school coach who was a retired military man and as a high school senior you don't really interact the way grown-ups would. McKay struck me as a pretty decent man and his credentials spoke for themselves. The USC freshman football team of 1969 consisted of lots of great high school athletes, most of whom had competed in high school football or track, so we knew each other. It was cool to me, I grew up competing, it didn't bother me, nobody had ever spoiled or catered to me, it had always forced me to play and compete, so it was like that at SC. After they get there, the recruiting is over, they don't tell you you're the best anymore, but for me it was easy. Maybe some others had not had to compete as much as a prep, it was not that I was so good but I always had to compete with others in high school. We all bonded and hung out together at USC: Manfred Moore, Charles Young, Rod McNeill, Chris Chaney, Allan Graf.
Eventually we formed something we called the "Big Five," and it consisted of Charles Young, Rod McNeill, Manfred Moore, Edesel Garrison, and myself. Later Lynn Swann became the "plus one" but he was younger, smaller and we made him fight his way in. He made himself a pain in the behind, so we'd mess with him. It was all in good fun, we loved each other, and it was just the right chemistry. Lynn was from Northern California, he'd gone to this preppy high school and was a real hot shot so we had to mess with him just to keep his head from getting too big.
That freshman year we played three games, against Stanford, Cal and UCLA I think. Freshmen couldn't play varsity in those days. This was an incredible group of athletes and expectations were huge that we would form a great team, but we thought it would materialize into Rose Bowls and national championships immediately. That was the expectation at USC, where the Trojans had won or come close to several titles in the last couple years; had unbeaten teams; we went to the Rose Bowl like it was on the schedule, so I figured it would be that way for us.
The first game of the 1970 season certainly convinced us that our time was now, that what we expected would materialize immediately. That was the famed game at Alabama. Going back to 'Bama I just kept it simple; get in and play well, and not dwell on the political side. I did not grow up in the Deep South. I knew if I got in and did not play well I'd not get in again. If I got a chance I had to execute. It was exciting, it was our first road trip, and if I'd known how historical it was gonna be, I'd have paid more attention, but it seemed like it was just another game at that time, at least for me, considering what my priorities were, which were: get in, play well so I can get in and play again. At USC there were a lot of guys who were good enough to play, so if you didn't get the job done it'd be a long time before you got in again.
That said, you knew this was a special game between two great football powers, and we happened to win that game. I could run to daylight or over people. That night at Alabama, they didn't have anybody who could stop me. That's just the way of it. Rod McNeill was more of a daylight runner. It didn't make any difference if somebody was in my way, I could go over you or around you, but that night I mainly just went over people.
The nighttime crowd at Legion Field was into it at first, they had every reason to feel they'd play well, but as the "Tide turned," they were trying to figure out what was happening. There are times when I'm in the stands, and my team is being destroyed, and it was like the first half of the 1974 USC-Notre Dame game. In the first half the fans were not in it until that last touchdown that Anthony Davis scored before the half, so it was like that. We came out like gangbusters, they were hyped from the beginning, but we took the wind out of their sails. They were watching history. I mean, there's only one story. That's what they saw. There was no way for them to spin it. I was not paying attention Bear Bryant. Again, my focus is always the next play, do well, and if you make plays you get to stay in the game.
It's been written that you could hear black fans outside the stadium, but I was not acutely focused on that. I was caught up in the fact that I had a chance to play and I never dreamt of it. I was not focused on the small group of black fans sitting behind the end zone rooting for us. We played a near-perfect game and destroyed them 42-21, and their fans were silent, every ounce of what they brought was gone.
As we showered and got to the bus I heard the black fans who were outside the stadium. We delivered something to them, we won the football game, that was the first thing, and when you win other things happen; and when you win in so dominating a fashion, whatever had been talked of or planned or put in motion now had a full head of steam. I tell people you don't have time to savor or enjoy, but we had to get ready for Nebraska after that.
For me there was no real weight off my back, it was a senior team and they had played two years, and they knew what it is to deal with the pressure to be a Trojan. I had been a baby and now I knew I could play college ball.
Charlie Evans was a white senior fullback, he was ahead of me and if I was going to get significant playing time, I'd be taking mostly his time. He started that game and even scored a touchdown, but he was expecting a glory year. You don’t get a lot of chances, and he knew the consequences that come from that, that your best shot rolls around and either you make the most of it or you don't. I'm a sophomore, but that game set the tone so that I got a lot of time after that. He was a good player and he played, but he did not attain the kind of glory he hoped and might have achieved had he gotten the playing time he hoped for. I never talked to Charlie about it. I'm told it grates on him to this day, and I'm sure it does, but he carried the ball before I did, he scored a TD in that game, but not the first two TDs.
Clarence Davis had a good game and normally he would have scored the first touchdown, being the starting tailback. He was an All-American in 1969, and if there was a civil rights story that night, everybody thought it would revolve around Clarence, because he was already an established star and because he had been born in Birmingham and symbolized the flight of black athletes from the South. But what made it so different for the fans looking on was that we had an all-black backfield and started a black quarterback, Jimmy Jones.
This was really unusual, not just for the South. It was something you saw at USC and almost no where else. Willie Wood had been USC's black quarterback and captain in the late '50s, which was really groundbreaking. Minnesota had a guy named Sandy Stephens, and Michigan State had a black quarterback, Jimmy Raye, a couple years earlier. That was about it.
That game at Birmingham is considered a seminal moment, but it could have happened earlier. USC had a history of black players, going back to Brice Taylor in the 1920s, although they kind of dropped the ball some for a few years after that, but in 1955 USC went to Texas with a black running back, C.R. Roberts, and he had a game comparable with mine. The Texas players shook his hand and accepted him because when you play you have a sense of respect for courage and talent that can't be denied, but the Texas fans kept jeering him and change did not result. Besides, Texas is a different mentality than the rest of the U.S. They just have their own way of doing things.
After the Alabama game I got a chance to speak to Bear Bryant outside the locker room. I think he also talked to Clarence Davis and a few others. You don't normally get a chance to talk to the head coach after games, that was unique, and then I got cleaned up and moved.
Tody Smith was a senior on our team that year. Tody was cool and he had a lot of pressure, being a senior plus he was the younger brother of Bubba Smith, and his father was a well-regarded coach in Beaumont, Texas. Tody's attitude going to Alabama was different from mine and some of the black players from California; his perspective being from Texas was not the same as mine. His brother, Bubba was a real character.
Fred Lynn was a football player at USC when I was there, but he quit and concentrated on baseball. Later he was asked about that and he said, "My football career ended courtesy of one too many hits from Sam 'Bam' Cunningham." Fred became an All-American on several College World Series champions at USC, and in 1975 he was the American League Rookie of the Year and MVP with the American League champion Boston Red Sox.
Fred was not a "come up and stick your nose in it" kind of guy. Fred was a talented athlete and he needed to play baseball. Most of this came out years later, it was not part of the conversation at the time, but it shows how much talent he had that he became a great baseball player. We had a lot of multi-sport athletes. Rod McNeill ran track, Charles Young was good in hoops. Anthony Davis was a baseball star. We had lots of great athletes, but you had to determine what you wanted to be at some time.
Charles Young was a leader. We were all young and great athletes. He and I hung out together a lot. If I needed somebody at my back it was him I wanted, as I hope it would be for him, too. He came from Fresno, which is different from Santa Barbara and took more adjustment to the social scene at SC. There were not a lot of blacks on campus then. Before it became a non-denominational university, USC was a religious university, and it was very traditional, conservative, and for the black athletes at that time we needed to be cognizant of this. It was not a discriminatory attitude, but you sensed that there were rules of conduct and we had to live within those rules.
Marv Goux told us, "Just don't do anything to disgrace the University, the football program, your teammates, your family, or yourselves." We understood this and lived it. You have to understand, within the black community there was not much there at SC. There was a cycle of movement as many had lived through the 1965 Watts riots, and there was an increase in black recruits who were brought in to keep the football program as great as it was, and if you get an education while there, then so be it. Charles Young knew that there was a trade of sorts, education for football; opportunity for us, glory for the school.
The neighborhood around USC had undergone some major change after the Watts riots, but USC is very important to that community and has always been viewed as a friend. It was not bad for us, and the University has expanded, so slowly but surely USC has helped to keep the area relatively benign. People are sending their kids to a school that's asking them to pay a lot of money, so they want to feel it's safe for them. There's a lot of history in that whole neighborhood area, and USC has always been part of it.
John Papadakis and I never competed against each other for the fullback job, but we had competed vs. each other as shot-putters in high school, and he's really emotional and takes it personal, but he made me a better player because I had to stand up and fight and we had physical confrontations. We developed great a friendship because of what we went through. John had been a running back but they turned him into a linebacker. I could have played linebacker. My philosophy about the game was that I just wanted to play. I was not worried about statistics or even my position. I wanted to play and I wanted to win.
I was never so vain that I needed to be the center of attention, the star. I was not raised to worry about how many times I touched the ball, it was a team sport, I wanted to be part of it, and I just wanted to win.
It all comes down to what people think about you 30 years later. If you can make yourself think of that you will act different. Either you're humble or not. If people throw all this money at you, you have to say the same, we did the same as the original cats who played football, only we made more money in the NFL than our predecessors. I've seen so many amazing athletes, and I might say I did the same thing that some guy does today and he makes millions, but I don't make a big deal of it.
I got the ball a lot my junior year. There was no dedicated tailback. I made All-American in 1972 because the team was so good, like Charle' Young averaging only about two catches a game, but he'd make 20 or 30 yards when he did catch it. John McKay made comments that he did not use me to run the ball as much as he'd like, and my yards were not all that high, but Charles and I were All-Americans in part because there was a recognition that we'd sacrificed for the team. We had so much talent spread out that no one guy was going to have sparkling stats. I don't know how you become an All-American, there's a lot that goes into it, the right team and publicity, but I never worried about it and just let things happen.
I tell you, that 1972 team, the reason some people thought the 2005 Trojan team was better was we were "vanilla" in what we did. We could've run what Pete Carroll's team runs today, and if we did it we'd've been even more untouchable. The only problem with the 2005 team was they lost leadership on the defensive side of the ball. They got caught up in the hype and we never got caught in the hype. We had cats who grew up together from '69 on, and had no great success or bowl games for two years prior, so we were really hungry. You come to USC and the expectations are the Rose Bowl, but we didn't have anybody in '72 who'd been to one.
Now they have so many guys drafted, they're not as hungry as we were in '72. Back then, you would come in and the Rose Bowl was the only game, if you don't make it there you don't go anywhere, so the motivation is to try and get there. Just to win the Rose Bowl, we felt we had to go undefeated to get that. Coach McKay said it was one of the easiest teams he ever coached. He said, "I just had to make sure we get off the bus." I just looked at teammates and I could see their mindset, and we'd say, "We got this." It was the most fun I ever had playing, hanging out, that journey, the outside bonding. We partied together, we were broke together, we would eat together, visit families in our hometowns, we were all we had. There was no discrimination against the black players at USC, but it was a social scene on campus that took getting used to, so we bonded with teammates because that was our comfort zone.
We were bound by the people you are with there, to make this work and we did. Football is hard work, it's a test of your heart and emotion, your sincerity. It's assumed you will be in shape, but beyond that you have to want it bad, and we wanted it bad.
Mike Rae was our quarterback and we were so run-heavy that the quarterback just had to hand off, but he could throw any pass he needed. He had been great at Lakewood High School. It always amazed me if any passer comes to SC, guys could go to Stanford where they'd throw, they could go anywhere and play, he really had to wait his turn, but he had a chance at the pros and it worked out in the long run. There were just a lot of great athletes.
Edesel Garrison was ahead of us. He'd come in on a track scholarship, then decided to concentrate on football, but he'd been a state champion sprinter at Compton High School. Anthony Davis was a sophomore in 1972 who got lucky because he was third string and we had some injuries. Rod McNeill was injured so he got to play, and Allen Carter got hurt, and he was great, the fastest of all the running backs we had. But A.D. was special. He was A.D. He had a great sophomore year on a great team, but any one of those running backs could do well. McNeill had a bad injury but he gutted it out and got his share of playing time.
The real key to that team was the defense. In 1970-71 we ran an even-front defense and did not move well out of it. Vs. Nebraska, Alabama, and Oklahoma, they ran wishbone lateral offenses and we were always behind. McKay changed in 1972 and ran an odd front defense and brought in Richard "Batman" Wood, who was by far the pearl of that defense. This guy came from New Jersey, across the river from New York City, and he was an unreal player and unique character.
I introduced myself to Wood and he introduced himself as "Batman from Gotham City." I asked, "What do you play?" and he says "Linebacker." I say, "You don't have big legs," and he just kind of looked at me like I was crazy, like, "When you see me play linebacker you will not question my ability to play that position." He was not as imposing-looking as say a Ted Hendricks, but he was a great athlete. Then there was safety Artimus Parker and Charles Phillips, who was a rover: linebacker, safety, he was 6-3 and incredibly athletic, later a great pro with Oakland.
That 1972 team could have beaten some lower-echelon teams in pro football. Washington State coach Jim Sweeney was asked if we were the best team in the country and he answered, "No, the Miami Dolphins are."
John Hannah was my teammate all those years in New England. He was an All-Pro, a Hall of Famer, a great blocker to run behind. He'd been on that 1970 Alabama team we beat, but we did not really talk about 1970. Why would he wanna talk about a game they did not win? I wasn't gonna grind him about it. John was from Alabama and he had to get adjusted to the fact that probably 40 percent of the NFL was black in 1974, but he was a gentleman and friend, a good teammate. Before integration really took, you had a lot of players coming out of the black colleges, but they weren't as fundamentally sound coming out as guys who played at big schools, major universities you already knew about. So a lot of black kids were not as fundamentally sound.
A large part of the effect of the 1970 game is that it forced a changed in those small schools, plus the AFL had an effect as well. The AFL had created additional pro football jobs and that meant more black players, and a lot of those early guys had been at black colleges. Al Davis got out ahead on this, he scouted less-known black colleges and found guys like Willie Brown and Gene Upshaw. Vince Lombardi built the Packers with a fair number of these guys, as well.
Sam "Bam" Cunningham was the hero of the legendary 1970 win at Alabama that is credited as a "tipping point" in "turning the Crimson Tide" against segregation. He was an All-American and captain of the 1972 Trojans, generally considered the greatest college football team ever. In USC's 42-17 thumping of Ohio State in the 1973 Rose Bowl, he scored four times to earn Player of the Game and eventually Rose Bowl Hall of Fame honors. After playing in the Hula Bowl, College All-Star Game and Coaches All-America Game, Sam was made the first round draft pick of the New England Patriots, where he played until 1982. He is a member of the USC Athletic Hall of Fame and will someday be in the National Football Foundation College Hall of Fame. His brother, Randall was a star quarterback with the Philadelphia Eagles.
Causes Steven Travers Supports
Conservative, Christian, USC, American patriotism