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Sam Cunningham, the Southern Cal Hall of Famer who helped integrate college football in the South, dies at 71

Correction/clarification: An earlier version of this story misstated Sam Cunningham's status in 1970. He was classified as a sophomore.

Sam Cunningham, the former Southern California and NFL running back who played an outsize role in the integration of college football in the South, died Tuesday at 71, according to Southern Cal.

As a sophomore in 1970, Cunningham was one of three Black starters in the Trojans' backfield, joining quarterback Jimmy Jones and fellow running back Clarence Davis. 

In his debut, Cunningham ran for 135 yards and two touchdowns in a 42-21 win against Alabama, which had yet to integrate. His performance, and the dominant play of a USC team featuring Black players in crucial roles, led Alabama coach Bear Bryant to speed up the process of integrating the roster. 

By the following season, running back Wilbur Jackson would become the first Black player in Alabama history. While some SEC schools had already integrated their rosters by the early 1970s, the rest of the conference followed Alabama's decision to recruit Black players.

One of Bryant's assistants, Jerry Claiborne, said that Cunningham "did more to integrate Alabama in 60 minutes than Martin Luther King did in 20 years."

The Crimson Tide would win three national championships between 1971-79 with 10 straight top-10 finishes and only one season with fewer than 10 wins.

"In the end they won, too," Cunningham said of Alabama in 2010, "because they experienced one of the best decades in school history after they integrated."

A three-year starter, Cunningham helped 1972 USC complete an unbeaten season and earn a place among the most hallowed teams in college football history by scoring four touchdowns in the second half of the Trojans' 42-17 Rose Bowl win against Ohio State. He was inducted into the Rose Bowl Hall of Fame in 1992 and the College Football Hall of Fame in 2010.

"It was going to happen whether it was us or somebody else,” he said in 2016. “But for us to be that team, for us to be an important part of history that evening, that’s something I’m proud of. I didn’t know. I was just there to play football, to play as hard as I could and hoping my teammates were doing the same.”

The 11th overall pick of the New England Patriots in 1973, Cunningham ran for 5,453 rushing yards with 1,905 yards and 49 touchdowns in a 10-year NFL career. A 1978 Pro Bowl selection, he was named to the Patriots Hall of Fame in 2010.

Cunningham was the older brother of former NFL quarterback Randall Cunningham and the uncle of high jumper Vashti Cunningham, who finished sixth in the event at this summer's Tokyo Games.

Follow colleges reporter Paul Myerberg on Twitter @PaulMyerberg