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Patriots great Sam Cunningham, the franchise’s rushing leader, dies at 71

Sam Cunningham, seen in a 1977 game against the Dolphins, rushed for 5,453 yards in his career.
Sam Cunningham, seen in a 1977 game against the Dolphins, rushed for 5,453 yards in his career.Phil Sandlin/Associated Press

Sam Cunningham, the Patriots’ all-time leading rusher, died Tuesday in California at the age of 71.

Cunningham, a first-round pick of the Patriots in 1973 out of the University of Southern California, rushed for 5,453 yards in nine seasons in New England, also catching 210 passes for 1,905 yards. He scored 49 touchdowns in his NFL career, 43 on the ground. He was inducted into the Patriots Hall of Fame in 2010.

In a release, USC said the cause of death is pending.

“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,” said Patriots chairman and CEO Robert Kraft in a statement issued by the team.

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Kraft was referencing the death of former wide receiver David Patten last Thursday.

“Sam ‘Bam’ Cunningham was one of my favorite players throughout the ‘70s and my sons all loved him,” the team owner’s statement continued. “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.”

Sam Cunningham goes over the top for a touchdown in a 1978 game against the Eagles.
Sam Cunningham goes over the top for a touchdown in a 1978 game against the Eagles.David Tenenbaum/Associated Press

Cunningham was the leader of one of the best single-season rushing attacks in NFL history; the 1978 Patriots rushed for 3,165 yards, setting an NFL record that stood until 2019, when the Ravens rushed for 3,296 yards. Cunningham (768 yards) was one of four players on that team with 500 or more rushing yards.

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“Coach [Chuck] Fairbanks laid out the game plan for what he wanted to do and what he wanted to accomplish,” Cunningham said in a 2010 interview of the 1970s Patriots. “He started bringing in players and teammates of ours and it made it very easy to work the game plan because we all had a great understanding of winning and trying to win championships.”

When it came to the New England offense of the late 1970s, Cunningham and the rest of the rushing attack proved to be the perfect complement to the passing game. Cunningham and his teammates forced defenses to crowd the line, opening things up for elite receivers such as Stanley Morgan and Darryl Stingley to operate in single coverage.

“That worked out great for us, because we had teams [whose] secondary [would] back up, would go into the zone coverage, and they would let us have the underneath catches,” recalled Morgan in a 2007 interview. “[And with a back] with the name of ‘Sam Bam,’ you just give it to him and let him run.”

While Cunningham’s on-field exploits drew raves in New England, he also had an impact in helping integrate college football. In 1970, Cunningham led an all-Black backfield to a win over an all-white Alabama team, coached by Bear Bryant. Cunningham finished the game with 135 yards and two touchdowns in the Trojans’ 42-21 win, an outcome that reportedly helped spur Bryant (and other Southern college coaches) to integrate their rosters.

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“Sam Cunningham did more to integrate Alabama in 60 minutes than Martin Luther King did in 20 years,” said Jerry Claiborne, an Alabama assistant coach.

In a 1973 game, Sam Cunningham looks for daylight with some help from Leon Gray.
In a 1973 game, Sam Cunningham looks for daylight with some help from Leon Gray..

Cunningham later revealed that he had mixed feelings about what happened that afternoon, telling the Los Angeles Times in a 2010 interview that the decision was more about football that integration.

“That didn’t change how those white people thought of Black people,” he said. “They were accepted because they could help their program win football games.”

Cunningham’s younger brother Randall starred as an NFL quarterback for 16 years.


Christopher Price can be reached at christopher.price@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at cpriceglobe.