LOS ANGELES – He remembers a few of his teammates from the South being apprehensive about the trip, that a couple of them packed guns in their luggage just in case. He knows now that Sept. 12, 1970, was one of the most important nights in college football history.
But back then, in the moment, Sam “Bam” Cunningham was just hoping he’d get to play in his first college game. Praying that if he did, he wouldn’t embarrass himself. Fate had much bigger plans for the backup fullback in a tailback-oriented Southern California offense.
“I have no idea why I got to carry the ball that evening,” he said. “I know the rest of the season I never carried the ball that much in one game. It was just the good Lord doing what he does.”
Cunningham became the unlikely star of an all-black backfield against all-white Alabama that night in Birmingham when he rumbled for 135 yards and 2 touchdowns on 12 carries in a 42-21 rout of the Crimson Tide. So stunning was that result, it has long been credited with hastening the full integration of Southeastern Conference football.
The next season, Alabama introduced its first black player, John Mitchell, who went on to become the school’s first black assistant coach and later the SEC’s first black coordinator.
“To be a part of it is just amazing,” Cunningham said. “To see what college football is now and know that we had a hand in kind of making it look like this, it’s special.”
When No. 1 Alabama and No. 20 USC meet again Saturday night, this time to open the 2016 season, both rosters will be predominantly black. The Crimson Tide’s two Heisman Trophy winners – Mark Ingram in 2009 and Derrick Henry last fall – are black. Alabama won an SEC championship two years ago with a black quarterback.
“I think they all owe Sam a bit more respect,” said USC athletic director Lynn Swann, a former Trojans star and Cunningham’s college roommate. “That game caught everyone’s attention and really kind of opened the door.”
Alabama already had one black player on the roster in 1970, but Wilbur Jackson was a freshman and ineligible to compete at that time. By all accounts, legendary Tide coach Paul “Bear” Bryant had been working behind the scenes to catch up to the rest of the country on integration – Cunningham even got a recruiting letter from him as a high school senior – but faced stiff opposition in his state.
Gov. George Wallace infamously vowed “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” in his inaugural address in 1963, then stood at the entrance of the University of Alabama later that year to block the enrollment of black students. So what is the path to progress in a climate like that? Threaten the future of a beloved football dynasty.
Bryant flew to L.A. to ask Trojans coach John McKay if he’d bring his fully integrated team to Legion Field, likely knowing full well what would happen.
“He had to show the powers that be that black and white players could play together and play at a high level together,” Cunningham said. “His belief as a football coach was to have the best talent so he could have the best team, and he knew he needed African-American players to be part of that in order to keep moving forward.”
Bryant had won three national championships at Alabama, but a 6-5 season in 1969 suggested the program was fading. Then came that beatdown at the hands of USC and its black quarterback, tailback (an Alabama native) and fullback. Bryant congratulated the three of them outside the locker room afterward and, years later at a golf outing, thanked Cunningham for the ripple effect.
He won three more national championships with integrated rosters.
“I tried to explain to him: ‘We were just playing football,’ ” Cunningham said. “You don’t always know what will happen in a football game; you just play, and you play as hard as you can, and that’s all I did that evening. That’s all we all did that evening. I didn’t have any malice in my heart because it was an all-white team. It was just a football team we were playing and trying to defeat.
“In the midst of a football game, college football history was changed forever.”
What strikes him about that game now, looking back, is the silence of resignation. He didn’t hear any racially charged taunts from the stands. He didn’t get any trash talk from the Crimson Tide. Once the Trojans started rolling, he couldn’t recall hearing much of anything.
“They played as well and as hard as they could play, and so did we, and we were much better than them that night,” Cunningham said. “I was always taught as a player, from high school, that when you go to someone else’s house, you try to quiet them down. That’s what we did.
“Basically what they were witnessing was the future because they saw what their program was going to be in the years to come. So as shocked as they might’ve been at the time, I’m sure they’ve come to appreciate what happened that evening. Because it benefited the University of Alabama and teams in the SEC much more than it benefited us.”
Turns out, though, Southern California got something out of the deal. Trojans offensive coordinator Tee Martin is a black man from Mobile, Ala., who became the starting quarterback for Tennessee’s 1998 national championship team.
He comes from a long line of Tide fans and cut his teeth on tales from that night in 1970.
“I grew up hearing about the Sam ‘Bam’ Cunningham story and the color lines being broken in the SEC, and I was the beneficiary of that,” Martin said. “So this game means more to me from a historical standpoint. Being from the state of Alabama, from the SEC, being out here at USC, that game is just a special thing. I’m going to be caught up in that.”
The funny thing about history is those making it often don’t realize it until much later. Cunningham sure didn’t. Forty-six years ago, he was just a young guy hoping to get in the game and not screw up. Those Trojans finished the 1970 season 6-4-1, “relatively mediocre.”
On his way to the College Football Hall of Fame and a long, successful NFL career, Cunningham would win a national championship in 1972.
“But that ’70 team will always be remembered for that game,” he said. “Years later, and mostly when I talked with older black men who grew up in Alabama and Mississippi and those areas, we’d be talking about football and they’d have no idea who I was, and they’d bring that game up. I would see the sparkle in their eye and I’d hear it in their voice, and I’m going, ‘Wow, OK, we really did something that evening.’ ”
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