Sam “Bam” Cunningham, the renowned football star of Santa Barbara High School who went on to have a legendary college and professional career, died Tuesday at the age of 71 in Inglewood.
Mr. Cunningham was born in Santa Barbara in 1950. After graduating from Santa Barbara High School, Mr. Cunningham went on to be a 3-year letterman at USC and earned All-American first-team honors in 1972. He was inducted into the USC Athletic Hall of Fame in 2001 and the College Football Hall of Fame in 2010.
While Mr. Cunningham was highly regarded for his ability on the field, he is best known for leading an integrated Trojan team to victory against Alabama in Birmingham, acting as a catalyst for integrated college football in the South.
On Tuesday, former Alabama and NFL player Mark McMillan paid tribute to Mr. Cunningham in a statement on Twitter, thanking him for “opening the door for players like myself to play in the south and Alabama.”
“Every time I stepped onto Legion Field, it was a blessing knowing you changed college football in that same stadium,” he added.
After college, Mr. Cunningham was selected by the New England Patriots in the first round of the 1973 NFL draft, beginning a nine-year professional career. During his time with the Patriots, he became the franchise’s all-time leading rusher and was named to the AFC Pro Bowl team in 1978.
The Santa Barbara native also earned honors locally, earning his spot in the Santa Barbara Athletic Round Table Hall of Fame in 1985.
Over the years, he returned to Santa Barbara High to cheer on siblings and family members, who also made a name for themselves competing in football and track.
In July, Santa Barbara High unveiled its newly renovated Peabody Stadium, naming the track “Cunningham Track” in honor of Sam and his brothers — Randall, Anthony and Bruce.
During an interview with the News-Press years ago, Mr. Cunningham spoke fondly of Santa Barbara and reflected on the local coaches and teachers who taught him and encouraged him in his early years.
“Santa Barbara is a city which cares for its young ones,” Mr. Cunningham said. “You really can understand that after growing up in this town and then going away for a while. I owe a lot to this town and its people — guys like coaches Sam Cathcart, Mike Moropoulos, Walt Evans … and Bill Van Schaick.”
USC broke the news of Mr. Cunningham’s death on Tuesday, prompting an outpouring of tributes from friends and fans of the beloved football star.
“Extremely saddened by the loss of a college football legend,” Clay Helton, USC’s head football coach, tweeted Tuesday. “As good a man as he was a player. Thank you Sam for being the example of what a Trojan should be. You will be missed but never forgotten.”
“Sam was the most gifted fullback I’ve ever known in terms of his speed, in terms of his ability to focus and as a great team player,” National Football Foundation Board Member and College Football Hall of Fame inductee Lynn Swann, who was a teammate of Cunningham at USC in the early 1970s, said in a statement. “He could have actually run as a tailback for USC. With his speed and his size, it would have been unbelievable to see him at tailback. But John McKay wanted him to be the fullback, and as we all know, it became a bit of a legend with Sam going over the top of an offensive line. Nobody could stop him.”
Mr. Cunningham is survived by his wife, Cine; his daughter, Samahndi; and his three brothers. Memorial service details are pending.