Before Bo Jackson – Sam Cunningham

Sometimes as a coach you are privileged to work with an athlete. In my 37 year career I cannot say that about too many. I can with Sam Cunningham. Many of you do not even know who he is because his big days were in the 1970’s as a star running back at USC and for the Patriots in the NFL. In his football days he was known as Sam “Bam” Cunningham. Sam was the one of the first athletes I got to coach. It was my first semester coaching as a student coach at Santa Barbara high school. I was coaching the shot putters and jumpers. Sam had thrown 61”10 the previous year and was a favorite to win the state that year. He was also one of the most sought after running backs in the nation. Sam did win State with a throw of 64”9” mostly because of his ability and competitiveness, certainly not because anything this wet behind the ears twenty one year old beginning coach had done. In the league meet Sam ran a 9.7 100 yard dash, won the 220, anchored the winning 440 relay and three the shot over 62” at 6”3” 220 pounds!

At the track banquet Sam gave me the shot that he used to win state meet with (I still have in my garage). I had given him the shot early in the season when the shot he was using kept slipping off his hand. Afterwards he told me (in private) that the shot always weighed in overweight by three to four ounces, but he kept using it because it felt good in his hand. As an aside he won the two meets leading to state and state meet by a grand total of eight inches with an overweight shot put!

Sam went to USC. His freshman year we both competed in the same decathlon. This was his first decathlon and last as he focused on football after that. It was also my first decathlon. Sam scored almost 6500 points without really have practiced four of the ten events. He did this with a 6 minute and 20 second 1500meters run in flats on a dirt track because of blisters. It happened to be Bill Toomey’s (the world record holder at the time) last decathlon and I remember him saying that if Sam focused on the decathlon he could be the world holder.

Beyond all of this Sam was a great person, humble, a leader, kind and considerate, the epitome of the team player and class. His greatest fame came on a fall evening in 1970 in Birmingham, Alabama. USC was playing University of Alabama at Legion Field in Birmingham Alabama. This was six years after the civil rights act of 1964, but Birmingham was the bastion of the Jim Crow South. Alabama had no black players on the varsity at the time and done everything possible to avoid playing integrated teams. Sam was not the starting fullback but he came in to the game early and went on to run for 135 years in 12 carries and score two touchdowns. This was his first varsity game. Here is a great quote from Sam taken from the book –Turning of the Tide – How One Game Changed the South by Don Yaeger with Sam Cunningham and John Papadakis: “The thing about games is that if you go out and play really,really hard and play as well as you can and do the things you need to do, you never know when the hand of greatness is going to touch you. That night I had no clue that anything was going to happen or that anything might change because of my play. I had a great night, ran for more than 100 yards, which I only did one other time in my three years at SC. But many people have said that one evening, it changed the face of college football in the Southeastern Conference. Did I go down there trying to do that? No. I just went on a road trip trying to play. My motivation was to play well enough so that I could play the next week That was it. It had nothing to with changing color lines, doing anything like that. But you never know when will get the chance to do something special.”

I was at Barnes & Noble yesterday when I saw the book. I picked it up and started reading it, when I saw the above quote I started crying. The people sitting across from me were wondering what was wrong, nothing was wrong, but I was crying tears of joy because I was privileged to be associated with this fine young man. Without him there might not have been a Bo Jackson.


At 8/27/06, 10:33 PM, Blogger Rob Machiorlete said...

That is one of the great things about sports is that it puts you in touch with great people who sometimes do remarkable things. Moreover, who knows if your paths would have crossed at all if it hadn't been for the community of sports uniting athletes and coaches.

How great to experience that joy at seeing the book and the quote... I get tears in my eyes during heartfelt ovations.


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