I grew up in Southern California in the late '60s and early '70s. I’ve always considered myself having grown up in poverty, thus learning to appreciate what’s really important in life, and to have attended schools with a very high percentage of minority students, allowing me to grow up without prejudice. Plus, as an aspiring athlete and an absolute sports junkie, we had the opportunity to root for national champion USC football and (every year!) national champion UCLA basketball. Plus, the Lakers still had Jerry West and the Rams would go to the playoffs every year (and lose).
There were a lot of things to root for and one big thing to root against: Alabama football. You know that saying about the only two people who know everything are God and an 8th grader? Well, being from Southern California and having what I believed to be a fine-tuned sense of racial justice, I couldn’t stand the national attention that Alabama football received.
They were an all-white team at an all-white school in an all-white conference and playing only against other all-white schools. How could they possibly be considered the best college football team in America?
It was a constant source of irritation, but it all changed with the Sam Cunningham Game. Cunningham was a stud football player from Santa Barbara (and the older brother of NFL legend Randall Cunningham). He accepted a scholarship to USC and as soon as he was eligible to play on the Varsity as a sophomore (that was the rule back then), he immediately became a force for the Trojans.
It was in that sophomore season of his that one of my fervent wishes came true—Alabama was going to play USC in football. Stories vary as to how the game even came about, but when it was first announced, jaws dropped all over the country. It is known that legendary Alabama Coach Bear Bryant and USC’s John McKay were friends. A lot of urban myths have grown up around the game, with one of the most enduring being that Bryant, sensing the tide of history (no pun intended), wanted to start recruiting Black players and perhaps showcasing an integrated team visiting Tuscaloosa could help that along. Some would say that he even wanted (or at least expected) to lose so that the move toward integration might be more fan-driven.
USC, which, with quarterback Jimmy Jones and tailback Clarence Davis had an all-Black backfield, went into the game ranked third in the nation while Alabama had fallen out of the Top 10 for a couple years after the departure of star quarterback Joe Namath. While they were playing at home, the 16th-ranked Tide players were no match for the Trojans.
The game was close until it started and then USC pulled away. Sam “Bam” Cunningham stole the show, rushing for 135 yards (from the fullback position!) on only 12 carries and scoring two touchdowns. So complete was the rout that McKay pulled his starters in the third quarter of the game that would end up a 42-21 USC victory.
One of the myths that endured for a long, long time was that Coach Bryant sought out Cunningham after the game and took the Trojan star in to the Tide locker room, announcing, “THIS is what a football player looks like.” How I always wished that that had been true. It’s like the scene in “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence,” where the newspaper editor says that when the truth comes up against the legend, print the legend.
It is true that Bryant waited outside the USC locker room to congratulate Cunningham, Jones, and Davis. After the game, Bryant is quoted as having said, “I want some players like that. I don’t care what color they are.”
McKay later said that Bryant called him to ask how to treat Black players, to which McKay responded, “Treat ‘em like everybody else.”
Not long after that, Alabama began recruiting Black players. And with Bryant providing cover, the rest of the lily-white Southeastern Conference soon followed suit.
Some say that the importance of that one game has been overblown, but I remember it exactly that way.
Sadly, after bending the arc of history towards righteousness, that USC team would experience some internal racial turmoil of its own and stumble to a 6-4-1 record. Two years later, Sam Cunningham was a first-team All American and the undefeated Trojans won the national championship. He would go on to a nine-year career in the NFL, making All-Pro in 1978 and retiring as the leading rusher in New England Patriot history.
Sam Cunningham died last week; he was 71. He remained humble to the end, downplaying the role he played in giving modern American history a nudge. In Alabama, integration started with a Bam.