The Value of a Running Back – More than Just Yards from Scrimmage and Touchdowns.

Like everyone during this COVID-19 lockdown, I have been receiving numerous emails, Facebook posts, Twitter notifications, and Instagram hits from the various professional sport properties: NFL, MLB, NBA, etc.  These continued contacts are the various leagues’ way of keeping me and other fans engaged while the teams and athletes stay sidelined.  A recent Facebook post from the NFL was entitled “Every NFL Teams’ All-Time Leading Rusher”.  

Taking notice, I reminisced while reading the names of the great Walter Payton, leading rusher for the Chicago Bears, (2ndwith 16,726 yards), the Detroit Lions’ tough to tackle Barry Sanders (3rdwith 15,259 yards), crazy Al Davis’s Oakland/Los Angeles’ Marcus Allen (17thwith 8,545 yards) and the all-time great, Jim Brown whose yardage still tops the Cleveland Browns’ 60 years after his retirement (5thwith 12,312). There were other greats such as Larry Csonka (Miami Dolphins), Emmitt Smith (Dallas Cowboys), and Franco Harris (Pittsburgh Steelers), but one name, the last name on the list, made me raise an eyebrow.  Way down on the bottom, last, with only 5,453 yards gained for his team the New England Patriots, stood the name – Sam Cunningham. Yes, after all of these years, Sam ‘Bam’ Cunningham was still the all-time leading rusher for the Patriots.  But even though his name was last on the NFL’s “Every NFL Teams’ All-Time Leading Rusher” list – his name is probably the most important.  Why?  Because Sam ‘Bam’ Cunningham, together with the USC Trojans, transformed the game of college football.

In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court, in the matter of Brown vs. Board of Education, overturned the long-standing ‘separate but equal’doctrine established in the Plessy vs. Ferguson decision and therefore symbolically ended an era of segregation known as ‘Jim Crow’.  Ten years later, taking a long overdue cue from the Court, President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964 with the purpose of ending public racial discrimination.  Interestingly, however, these federal holdings and laws did very little to persuade a number of southern colleges and universities to integrate, a number of which were members of the South Eastern Conference (SEC), and Jim Crow continued to be a significant part of college life and in particular, college athletics.

One university epitomized the attitude of the SEC. The University of Alabama, buried in the heart of the South, became the Flagship for Segregationin that it had rarely, if ever, accepted a person of color.[1]  In fact, then Alabama Governor George Wallace, in defiance of the Civil Rights Act, used his gubernatorial powers to keep many segregation laws in place, which included an attempt to ban all people of color from attending the University.  This ‘ban’ resulted in the entire student body, together with the entire football team, remaining predominately white throughout the 1960s. To make matters worse, the Crimson Tide football team wonnational championships in 1961, 1964, and 1965, so therefore they, the University and the people of Alabama, didn’t see the need to integrate.  Why should they, the thought being, when the football team was winning championships with all white teams?

A university on the west coast, however, had an entirely different perspective. The University of Southern California (USC) had diversified in the early 1920s and the football program had already featured black athletes for decades. In 1960, USC hired John McKay as its head coach. Teams under the leadership of Coach McKay went on to number one rankings in both 1962 and 1967, a Rose Bowl appearance in 1968, and an undefeated season and Rose Bowl win in 1969. As the fortunes of the USC Trojan football team continued to rise throughout the latter part of the1960s, those of the Crimson Tide where heading in a different direction.  After an 8-2 season in 1967, the teams went 8-3 (4-2 in the SEC) in 1968 and by1969, the University of Alabama endured a subpar season going 6-5 (2-4 in the SEC).  Calls to fire legendary coach, Paul ‘Bear’ Bryant, were heard from the Pensacola panhandle, all the way to Huntsville. Butwas the Tide’s decline because Bear Bryant lost his ability to coach college football, or was it because college football was passing the University of Alabama by because it and its State were stuck in their old, segregated, racist ways by not allowing Bryant to recruit talented black athletes to be part of the football team?  Before it was too late, Coach Bryant needed to find out.  

With the unsolicited help of the NCAA, who coincidentally changed the rules to allow its member institutions to play an 11-game season instead of the traditional 10, Coach Bryant got his chance.[2] Needing to find an ‘eleventh game opponent’, Coach Bryant stealthily contacted Coach McKay and offered him $150,000 to bring his diversified Trojan team to Tuscaloosa in the fall of 1970 to play his all-white Crimson Tide team in front of 70,000 all, or at least, mostly, white fans.[3] After some horse trading, and a promise by Coach Bryant to travel to southern California the following season to play USC on its home turf, an agreement was made.[4]What came of this agreement, however, forever changed the game of college football. 

The date, September 12, 1970, the USC Trojans lined up against the Crimson Tide in one of the first ever integrated college football games played on the University of Alabama’s turf.  Notably, Sam Cunningham, only a sophomore, was not the starting running back since the Trojans had what was considered a ‘crowded backfield’.  Senior running back Charlie Evans was given that privilege but after a couple of offensive plays Coach McKay put Cunningham into the game to test his skills against what was considered a high-caliber defense.  Cunningham rose to the occasion, annihilating the Tides’ defense by running for 135 yards and two touchdowns on only 12 carries, all while leading the Trojans to a 42-21 victory.[5]  Spectators stated that Cunningham exhausted the Tide’s defense both physically and mentally. 

More importantly, however, beyond what feats were accomplished on the playing field, Cunningham proved to the people of Alabama that athletes of color can compete at the highest level of college sport.  And not only compete, they can excel, or in this case, single handedly destroy.  He, together with his fellow USC teammates,[6]showed a racist fan base of Alabama that black and brown athletes have the skill, athleticism, and brains to compete against their white counterparts.

The USC Trojan victory on that September evening in 1970 was the catalyst for Coach Bryant and the University of Alabama, together with other colleges and universities throughout the SEC, to recruit and incorporate African-Americans and other people of color into its football programs. More importantly, it began to change the mindset, however slowly, of the Crimson Tide fans and as Sam ‘Bam’ Cunningham himself stated years later, “What they saw was the future,” Cunningham said of the hushed, stunned Legion Field crowd. “Their team was eventually going to be integrated.”

So, the New England Patriots’ Sam Cunningham may be the last name on the NFL’s “Every NFL Teams’ All-Time Leading Rusher” list, but it is without question, that his name is number one on the list of most important running backs to ever play the game.  


[1]Autherine Lucy Foster enrolled in the University of Alabama in 1956. She first applied to the school in 1952, but her acceptance was rescinded because she was not white. Four years later, she became the first African American to attend a white school or university in the state of Alabama. Three days later, she was expelled.

[2]1970 was the first season the NCAA allowed member institutions to schedule 11 regular season games.  “Grid squads get 11 games” Spokesman-Review. (Spokane, Washington). Associated Press. January 15, 1970. p. 14

[3]Note – Alabama did have a black player on its team in 1970, freshman Wilbur Jackson.  However, Jackson did not suit up for this game because the NCAA, at that time, did not allow freshmen to play at the varsity level.

[4]There is a debate as to whether or not Coach Bryant got together with Coach McKay (a close friend) in order to show his fans the self-interested advantages of integration. Though it’s difficult to imagine Bryant was eager to schedule a loss to make a point, it is notable, however, that he would go on to win three national titles with integrated teams.

[5]In fact, the Trojans dominated in every aspect – its 559 total yards being nearly 300 more than Alabama’s output.

[6]The USC Trojans starting quarterback, Jimmy Jones, was/is a person of color.

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