Memories rush back to Cunningham

Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is greeted by Bills Hall of Famer Jim Kelly during pregame warmups. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is greeted by Bills Hall of Famer Jim Kelly during pregame warmups. (Barry Chin/Globe Staff)
By Julian Benbow and Monique Walker
Globe Staff / September 15, 2009

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The legend goes like this.

In 1970, a year after 11 black student-athletes filed a lawsuit accusing Alabama coaching legend Paul “Bear’’ Bryant of not recruiting black athletes, an all-white Crimson Tide team hosted the University of Southern California, which had two of the top black running backs in the country.

One of them was Sam Cunningham, who was practically oblivious to it all.

That May, six blacks were killed - five by police - during a race riot in Augusta, Ga. The same month, the mayor of Fayette, Miss., had been killed along with his wife, sparking a riot at Jackson State University. Birmingham, Ala., where the USC-’Bama game was played, had been dubbed “Boomingham’’ because of the more than 50 dynamite bombings between 1947 and 1965 of the homes of black families who had moved to the fringes of white neighborhoods.

Cunningham, however, was only 20 at the time. He was aware of the circumstances - “One of my teammates did bring a gun,’’ he said - but he didn’t think about them.

“You got to understand, I grew up in Santa Barbara, Calif.,’’ he said. “Did I know how the culture was there? Yes. Did I have any animosity or anything in my heart for that? No. It was what it was.

“If I had grown up there, it would have definitely been a different mind-set, but I had teammates that grew up in the South and their mind-set was very different from mine. So for me, it was just a football game.’’

He ran for 135 yards and two touchdowns, and the Trojans won, 42-21. And this is where the story grows into a myth.

Word was that Bryant went to USC’s locker room, shook Cunningham’s hand, and invited him into the Crimson Tide’s locker room. Bryant then presented Cunningham to his team, saying, “Gentlemen, this is what a football player looks like.’’

The way the story goes, that moment was a milestone, marking the moment Bryant realized it was time to integrate his program. One Alabama assistant would say, “Sam Cunningham did more to integrate Alabama in 60 minutes than Martin Luther King did in 20 years.’’

The truth is Alabama already started recruiting black athletes. One of them was actually watching from the stands that afternoon. As for the Bryant and Cunningham exchange, it wasn’t nearly as dramatic.

“He congratulated me and Clarence Davis and Jimmy Jones outside of the locker room after the game,’’ Cunningham said. “The story got started that he took me into the other locker room, but I never really went in there.

“Back then there was no ESPN and all this to filter out all the madness, so for over 30 years, through urban legend, that’s what it was.’’

In Foxborough for the first time since his nine-year NFL career ended in 1982, Cunningham spent time with Patriots owner Robert Kraft, celebrating the team’s 50th anniversary.

Kraft invited Cunningham to his home Sunday night, something Cunningham, who rushed 5,453 yards and 43 touchdowns for the Patriots, appreciated.

“I had not met him or his family and he had never met me,’’ Cunningham said. “I told him, I said I really appreciate him opening the door and allowing me to come here and come back and be a part of something that was such a big part of my life.’’

Still, when he thinks about that game in Birmingham, Cunningham says, the message behind it is far more important than the myth.

“The game was really played to be subtle,’’ he said. “It was played for people in Birmingham to see how we as Trojans, black and white, played together.

“It wasn’t that we were black and white but that we were all cardinal and gold that evening and we played together and to show the people that it could be done and that it would be OK for Coach Bryant to be allowed to recruit black athletes because there were so many athletes right around the corner in the state.’’

It was Coach Bryant’s brainchild and it affected college football forever. A lot of kids can go wherever they want now.’’

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