Sam "Bam" Cunningham gained football immortality on Sept. 12, 1970, leading the USC Trojans to a 43-21 blowout over the Alabama Crimson Tide at Birmingham's steamy Legion Field.
Cunningham scored two touchdowns and rushed for 135 yards, forcing Southern football fans to acknowledge the excellence of black players, who came to dominate college sports in the region.
One of USC's all-time great running backs, along with Frank Gifford, O.J. Simpson, Marcus Allen and Reggie Bush, Cunningham died Monday at age 72 at his home in Inglewood, Calif.
Contrary to myth, Cunningham's performance against Alabama in the blazing afternoon sun didn't push Crimson Tide Coach Bear Bryant to recruit black players to his alma mater.
Bryant had already signed black halfback Wilbur Jackson, who watched the USC game from the stands because freshmen were then ineligible, as al.com reporter Greg Stephenson noted in an excellent obituary on Cunningham. Black defensive end John Mitchell, a junior college transfer, also played for Alabama in 1971 when the Crimson Tide defeated USC at Memorial Stadium in Los Angeles.
In 1970, black players had already arrived in the South. Alabama played a game in 1969 against Tennessee, which had one black player. Kentucky in 1965 signed black football player Nate Northington, the SEC's first black athlete. Tennessee and Kentucky signed the conference's first black basketball players, and Bryant as Alabama's athletics director had encouraged basketball coach C.M. Newton to do the same.
Although Bryant was already recruiting black players, the 1970 USC game attained major significance in the South’s acceptance of integration, as Los Angeles Times sportswriter David Wharton detailed in a tribute to Cunningham.
USC with 12 black players and an all-black backfield including Cunningham was the first fully integrated team to play in Alabama, a landmark for the South.
Cunningham and his black teammates later recalled their concerns over traveling to a city that had violently resisted the civil rights movement. USC Coach John McKay's scheduling of the game and the team's dominant performance in a hostile environment showed courage.
USC was college football's most glamorous team, and the Trojans' traveling to Birmingham from glitzy Los Angeles reflected the South's emerging urban sophistication.
No. 3 USC's convincing win over No. 16 Alabama was one of several Southern civil rights advances connected to sports.
The Braves' move to Atlanta in 1966 with black stars Henry Aaron, Felipe Alou and Rico Carty fostered tolerance, belied by hatred spewed at Aaron for breaking Babe Ruth’s career home run record.
In the NCAA national basketball championship game in 1966, Texas Western's all-black lineup upset Adolph Rupp's all-white Kentucky team.
Syracuse’s black running backs Jim Nance and Floyd Little drew national attention and controversy when they played against all-white LSU in the 1965 Sugar Bowl.
After the legendary game in Birmingham, Cunningham continued his stellar college career, earning All-American honors. He scored four touchdowns in USC's 17-10 victory over Ohio State in the 1973 Rose Bowl, which gave the Trojans the national championship.
Advancing to the NFL, Cunningham played nine years for the New England Patriots and remains the team's leading all-time rusher. His younger brother, Randall Cunningham, starred for the Philadelphia Eagles.
In 1970, Sam Cunningham ran for glory in Birmingham, blazing a new path for Southern sports. Sadly, the larger society has not yet followed.