Family and friends honor Sam ‘Bam’ Cunningham at memorial service
Lynn Swann remembers the night Sam “Bam” Cunningham, the man who held the record for the most touchdowns in a Rose Bowl game, chased him through a parking lot one evening after Mr. Swann teased him.
There they were, zig-zagging between cars in a parking lot at night. And here Mr. Swann was, all those decades later, talking about that Saturday from behind a podium on the 50-yard line of the Peabody Stadium field where Mr. Cunningham made the plays that got him All-American honors in football.
“Sam was chasing me, all 230 pounds of a fullback trying to catch this fast wide receiver,” Mr. Swann told the crowd of hundreds of people during a memorial service for this legend they loved. Many in the crowd had played with Mr. Cunningham.
Mr. Swann told the audience he couldn’t outrun Mr. Cunningham, his roommate, who grabbed him that night in the parking lot.
“I knew right then that if I was going to survive my experience at the University of Southern California, I was going to have to step up my game,” Mr. Swann said. “Sam didn’t have to say much. He led by example.”
Friends and family praised Mr. Cunningham, the record-breaking USC and New England Patriots fullback who died Sept. 7 at age 71, during a service that was a blend of laughter and tears.
Standing near displays of Mr. Cunningham’s Patriots, USC and Santa Barbara High School’s jerseys, Meryl Cohn read Mr. Cunningham’s obituary, which noted his place in the history of college football.
Mr. Cunningham, whose jersey number was 39 for the Patriots and Trojans and 34 for the Dons, rushed for 135 yards and two touchdowns in the Sept. 12, 1970, game between USC and the University of Alabama. Mr. Cunningham’s performance as a black athlete in that away game is credited for inspiring the integration of college football in Alabama.
Mr. Swann took note of that moment.
“Sam didn’t let that go to his head,” Mr. Swann said. “He did what he was supposed to do. He was a man in a place that time called for in athletics and in America. It did not change Sam one bit.
“He was the same, kind, gentle, good-hearted individual that he had always been,” Mr. Swann said. “That was not going to change.
“We celebrate him for all the things he’s done,” Mr. Swann continued. “I will never forget him as a friend.”
There were a number of emotional moments during the service. Howard Slusher, Mr. Cunningham’s agent, found it difficult to speak about the friend he lost, and Samahndi Cunningham, Mr. Cunningham’s daughter, ran up and embraced him. That helped Mr. Slusher, who delivered his tribute, then joked he would collect his usual agent’s fee of 10%. The audience laughed.
Family member Kayla Cunningham sang a tribute, and Randall Cunningham, Sam Cunningham’s brother, praised his brother during his time at the 50-yard podium. He said he knows they will one day be reunited in heaven.
“I look forward to seeing my brother in Paradise,” Randall Cunningham said as the clouds above him parted.
The service was led by Charle’ Young of Madison Temple COGIC, a longtime friend of Mr. Cunningham. For the eulogy, he stepped in front of the podium and onto Cunningham Track, named after Sam, and walked up and down in front of the crowd.
“I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for Sam,” Mr. Young said, referring to how his friend inspired him to stay on the right path. “I probably would have died somewhere on the streets of Los Angeles.”
Mr. Young and other speakers stressed Mr. Cunningham, who’s survived by his longtime wife Cine D. Ivery and many family members, was not just a great football player. (His name is in several halls of fame).
They said he was a great man.
“I want you to hear me and hear me well. Sam was born for a time like this,” Mr. Young said. “That was the reason he came.”
As he walked down the new Cunningham track, Mr. Young noted Mr. Cunningham ran down the old, cinder block track around the same field. “He ran down the fastest guys in the state. That was Sam Cunningham.
“Sam Cunningham was a wise man. Sam Cunningham was a strong man,” Mr. Young said. “Sam had a heart of gold.”
As he talked further, Mr. Young put his emphasis on Sam’s name in each statement.
“Sam was my friend. Sam was the best man at my wedding,” Mr. Young said. “Sam was the godfather of my first child.”
Mr. Young, 70, told the crowd that it’s important to make the fourth quarter of your life count because that’s when the game is won or lost.
“I owe it to Sam on this day to give the best I can.”