"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
In 1970 USC traveled to Alabama and played the Crimson Tide at Birmingham's Legion Field. USC, with an integrated squad, defeated the segregated Crimson Tide. When it was over, USC’s players were utterly drained, physically, 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 their locker room.
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 nevertheless 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.
The Legion Field locker room 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, 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 did not happen. Alabama assistant coach 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?
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.
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.
Causes Steven Travers Supports
Conservative, Christian, USC, American patriotism