John Hannah was a sophomore offensive lineman on the 1970 Alabama team. He blossomed into an All-American, became a perennial All-Pro with the New England Patriots (where he blocked for his teammate Sam “Bam” Cunningham), and in 1991 was elected into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. A longtime New England resident, Hannah recently went back to his Southern roots, taking a job with the football program at the Baylor School in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
In New England, I think Sam “Bam” Cunningham was a class act. I enjoyed blocking for him. He was a hard runner, a fine gentleman, and a great teammate. . . . We hated to lose him. He’s a leader.
John Vella was my opposite number that day against Southern Cal. . . . He’s a great player. Tody Smith was also opposing me in that game, and he tore me a new one. He’s a senior, and I’m a sophomore. He ate me up that year. Who was that other guy, Charlie Weaver? Man, I’m telling you, he was a great player too.
I was familiar with Southern Cal football [because] my uncle was a coach in California. He’d been at San Bernardino Junior College and was at Cal State, Fullerton. He found I was thinking about going someplace other than Alabama, so he had the Southern Cal coaches call me, but I stayed at home instead. My uncle, he was one of those guys who died in that Fullerton State plane crash in 1971. My junior year, six coaches died on a scouting trip prior to some play-offs, and he was on his way up to scout opposition. They hit a wind current, and the plane went down.
On the game against USC. I saw a little game film from the year before, so I knew we were in for a handful. We had a bunch of sophomores playing, and I saw their size relative to our team. They were bigger than us. Compared to them, we were runts.
They were a bunch of ball hawks on defense, they ran the ball out of an I [formation] on offense, and they were going everywhere. I was impressed with what they did and how physical they were.
There wasn’t much going on in my mind [about political issues], to be quite honest with you. I did know about the world going on. If I got selected in the draft, I’d go; but I wasn’t worried about it. I guess I was very patriotic; I wasn’t one of these guys protesting the war or anything like that. I was a typical young Alabamian. In 1970, I was 19. One time, a couple of our guys were walking through the student union when those protests hit, and they tried to take down the flag. A few of us surrounded that flag and wouldn’t allow it to happen.
On Bryant’s statement. Coach Bryant was supposed to have said of Sam Cunningham, “This here’s what a football player looks like.” I don’t remember him doing that. He didn’t need to bring him in the locker room. I saw what it was supposed to be like on that field. Sam was six-foot-three, 212 [pounds]. He overpowered people. You can’t deny what he did. I was busy licking my wounds, because I had witnessed what a football player looks like.
That being said, it was a long time ago, and the way the lockers were at Legion Field, he could do things in part of the locker room and we wouldn’t see it, or maybe I was in the training room. He might have brought him in that locker room, but I don’t know exactly what happened.
I do recall Jerry Claiborne saying, “Sam did more for civil rights than Martin Luther King.”
On the media after the game. I’m sure there were media in there. They’d all come in, and that’s when I headed into the locker room, especially after the game when the emotions were still flowing. I was afraid I’d say something stupid.
Bryant had a select few writers he’d let in, because he knew they wouldn’t do anything detrimental to the team. It was not an open door, but he fairly knew who he wanted in there. The newspapers knew if they ever wrote anything crazy, they’d not be allowed in again. He’d do most of the talking. I’m just a dumb offensive lineman, a sophomore—heck, they don’t want to talk to me.
On USC recruiting at the game. I don’t know if Southern Cal had five black recruits from Alabama at that game. I can’t recall all that much. Our family wasn’t racist; it was not like they depict us on TV. The whole state was not racist, but that loud few, unfortunately they got all the attention. I played with a lot of black guys when I was a kid. I don’t remember any problem with blacks. John Mitchell came over, and we hung out all the time. Wilbur Jackson and I weren’t close, but that had nothing to do with race. I didn’t think that much about it.
I was glad to have [black players] John and Wilbur on the team beginning the next year. It made my life easier. Alabama fans, a lot of ’em, whether they admit it or not, I think, were prejudiced. George Wallace was still there. I think it would have been hard for a lot of blacks to come to Alabama if not for Sam. He gave us that shellacking.
On Bryant’s intentions with the game. Now the question you’re after is whether or not Coach Bryant “planned” it out. In other words, was this just a non-conference football game, or was it supposed to open doors for black recruits? You know what, I think Bryant planned it to open doors for blacks.
Let me give you an example. Just a week before the Southern Cal game, Bryant had one of those old-fashioned “gut check” practices, like they depict in The Junction Boys. Six or seven guys dropped out on account of dehydration cases. It’s hot—late summer in Alabama. Oh man.
I’m not sure about “The Pit.” We had “The Cage,” which were blocking chutes that pitted offensive linemen on one side and defensive linemen on the other. It was meant to determine who could push the other man out of that cage. It was pure mano a mano, and if you raised high up or gave in, you’d get your head . . . near torn off; it’d get caught in that cage, and all the guys are screaming and yelling. It’s intense, and if Coach didn’t like the way you did it, he’d have you do it again or put somebody else in there.
The point is, he never had that kind of practice so close before a game. Something was up; I just didn’t know it at the time. Now, the Bear schedules this game. I know his assistants all say he didn’t set us up, whether it was to lose. But was there a larger plan other than just preparing for this game? Yes. I think he did plan an event that would lead to integration. I believe Bryant realized, if you think about it, that we were starting 15 sophomores, and juniors who were inexperienced, and just a few seniors.
Why else, a week before this game, would he go and put us through the “death camp?" I’m telling you, people were fallin’ out like flies, then play Southern Cal? I think he felt we’d be okay over the next 10 games; it was a young team he wanted to get ready for greatness in our future. This game was for our future. He knew we were not getting the best blacks out of Alabama, so I think he had that in the back of his mind. He was good friends with John McKay; it was easily doable. So, yes, I’m just convinced that Bear Bryant accomplished several things in losing at home to Southern Cal. He accomplished the task of toughening up a young team, and at the same time he opened people’s eyes to letting blacks into the program. The fact he did it quietly, was sly about it, didn’t brag it up or talk about it a whole lot, was pure Bear Bryant—but he planned it, no question. Look how successful it all worked out!
I think, in the back of my mind, no coach in his right mind would bring in a team the caliber of Southern Cal as an extra game, knowing the inexperience we had, plus the “meat grinder” the week before—ask anybody, do they remember what it was like the week before that game? We had a guy named [Tommy] Wade, a starting defensive back, who broke his leg; six guys ended up in the hospital. . . . I never want to go through another [practice] like that. I wanted to go home so bad, so instead of eating I fell asleep on my bed. I’m not lying, if I’d not fallen asleep, I’d have quit Alabama that day and gone home.
The next day, Bryant says, “Y’all learned a big lesson yesterday. You find the human body is an amazing machine that passes out before it dies!”
So, based upon all these factors, yes, Bryant was willing to sacrifice a loss in the 1970 season opener in order to make his program successful over the long run. He didn’t want to lose that game. He wanted to win, but he knew that a loss had the potential of accomplishing his larger goal.
That was the game. I think that one game did more for social change in Alabama than anything that ever transpired. You lead by influencing people to want to do something, you don’t stuff it down people’s throats; that automatically causes total resistance. Now here’s Bryant, a leader, and he’s saying, “Let’s be leaders; let’s make people want to integrate.” All of a sudden, everybody wanted to integrate the schools. You don’t stuff it down people, absolutely not.
. . . George Wallace called Bryant weekly. The reason was he was scared that Bryant would run for governor, because he’d win. Auburn people would vote for him, too, so he’d not coach anymore. The South, if you think about it, it’s all Scots-Irish, and we’re tribal people. Scots-Irish aren’t feudal; they don’t like government interfering with your rights. The liberal media never believes this, they never gave us a chance, but we would have done the right thing on our own given the chance to do it our way.
I’m tellin’ you, we were going to integrate and do the moral thing on our own. That said, yes, it needed a push, and this game was that push. But it happened the way Bear Bryant planned it—quietly, smoothly—not because of a protest march. This is the best evidence, I think, that what I’m saying is right.
Again, don’t get me wrong. There were “rednecks,” and they took it as integration instead of a federal vs. states’ rights issue. Blacks took the fall throughout the South. But through Sam, Lynn Swann, guys like that, they refocused the issues again and made people understand that when it came to black athletes, we needed ‘em.
Some Alabamians and other Southerners basically just say they need [blacks] to have a winning team. . . . Others see the money perspective, because football is huge business. Coach Bryant never had to take money from the school for scholarships. We built the law school, we built the student union—football built that school. Money was important to the administration. But the overwhelming number of people in this region of America does believe in the divine Trinity. There are a lot of good Christian believers who realized the color of a man’s skin is not what he is, but rather, it’s his spirit, and that’s what he is as a person. So all three of those issues—democratic freedom, money, and religion—help us get to the right conclusions. . . .
One last thing: I’d not heard from Sam Cunningham in a long time. He left the Patriots in 1982. It had been 15, 16 years, and I didn’t know how to get hold of him. Finally I saw somebody, and they called me and gave me Sam’s phone number. So I called to see how he had been, not knowing how he’d been.
I don’t know if you know this, but his mom passed away around 1982. He was the eldest, so he came home to take care of things and had to stay away for two weeks. Sam felt so bad about leaving the Patriots, but it was Ron Meyer who cut him when he was away taking care of his family. He thought the players were mad at him for leaving them “high and dry,” but we all knew Ron Meyer had mistreated him, and I told him how much I admired him and the way he played. Of all the guys, I loved blocking for Sam.
The next year, after Meyer cut him, he decimated the team up here. For Sam, who I think did what was right for his family, because of the coach unjustly cutting him, Sam thinks he let us down and he felt bad. It was the other way around, and we thought we’d let him down. Which is why he didn’t come around—that’s the kind of guy he was—but nothing could be further from the truth. So I talked for two hours with Sam, and it was a great talk. I think the world of Sam.
He’s the kind of man I look at and say, “I want to be somebody like Sam."
Causes Steven Travers Supports
Conservative, Christian, USC, American patriotism