According to multiple reports, former Patriots running back Sam Cunningham has passed away at the age of 71 in Inglewood, California.
Cunningham, who was commonly referred to as “Sam ‘Bam’ Cunningham,” played nine NFL seasons, all with the Patriots, between 1973 and 1982. Drafted in the first round in 1973, his 5,453 career rushing yards make him the team’s all-time leading rusher.
In 1977, Cunningham rushed for a career-high 1,015 yards in 14 games. The next season, he was named to his first ever Pro Bowl as an integral part of an offense that set the NFL single-season team rushing record, a record that stood until 2019.
Before joining the Patriots, Cunningham was part of what was believed to be the first all-black backfield in Division-I college football history at USC. That team’s performance, and Cunningham’s 135 yards and two touchdowns specifically, against Alabama in 1970 was believed to be a driving force in Paul ‘Bear’ Bryant making Alabama the first SEC team to integrate the following year. At the time, then-Alabama assistant coach Jerry Claiborne remarked, “Sam Cunningham did more to integrate Alabama in 60 minutes than Martin Luther King did in 20 years.”
He won a national championship with USC in 1972, and his four touchdowns scored in that year’s Rose Bowl remain a modern-day record for the game.
Cunningham is a member of both the College Football Hall of Fame and Patriots team Hall of Fame.
“We are deeply saddened to learn of yet another loss to the Patriots family this week and our hearts ache for Sam Cunningham’s family and all who are mourning his passing today,” Patriots’ owner Robert Kraft said in a statement from the team. “Sam ‘Bam’ Cunningham was one of my favorite players throughout the ‘70s and my sons all loved him. After I bought the team in 1994, it was my honor to welcome him back to the team on multiple occasions, recognizing him as a 50th anniversary team member and again for his induction into the Patriots Hall of Fame. As much as I admired him as a player, my affection for him only grew after spending time with him and learning more about him as a person. He made a tremendous impact, both on and off the field, and was beloved by his teammates. As a Patriots Hall of Famer, Sam’s legacy and contributions will be preserved and celebrated forever, but today his loss is felt with heavy hearts.”