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Sam Cunningham, who turned heads in NCAA and gobbled up yards for Patriots, dies at 71

Mr. Cunningham barreled toward Miami Dolphins linebacker Steve Towle during a 1977 game.
Mr. Cunningham barreled toward Miami Dolphins linebacker Steve Towle during a 1977 game.Phil Sandlin/Associated Press

Sam “Bam” Cunningham, a punishing fullback who chewed up more rushing yards than anyone else in New England Patriots’ history, died Tuesday at his home in Inglewood, Calif. He was 71.

The death was announced by the University of Southern California, where Mr. Cunningham was an All-American who led the Trojans to the national title in 1972. A cause of death was not given.

The Patriots selected the bruising runner with their first-round pick, the 11th overall, in the 1973 draft.

His tenure started simply. He recalled to the Globe one of his first talks with then-Patriots coach Chuck Fairbanks: “He turned his head sideways, smoked his cigarette, and says, ‘You better not fail me.’ I said, ‘OK, I’ll do the best I can.’’'

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That would prove to be plenty.

In nine seasons with the team, he would amass 5,453 rushing yards, surpassing star running back Jim Nance.

Mr. Cunningham, with lineman Leon Gray, cutting through the San Diego Chargers defense.
Mr. Cunningham, with lineman Leon Gray, cutting through the San Diego Chargers defense. frank o brien

In addition to being able to run over or around defenders, Mr. Cunningham was also known for his punishing blocks. Former teammate Steve Nelson, a linebacker, said Mr. Cunningham’s hits “stung’' whereas other backs’ hits were a mere thud.

He also was a threat on screen passes, tallying up 1,905 yards on 210 receptions. In all, he had 49 touchdowns.

He was part of group of backs in 1978 who set an NFL team record for rushing yards with 3,165. The mark stood until 2019, when it was broken by the Baltimore Ravens.

In 2010, he was named to the Pats’ Hall of Fame.

“Sam ‘Bam’ Cunningham was one of my favorite players throughout the ‘70s and my sons all loved him,’’ said Patriots chairman and CEO Robert Kraft, who bought the team in 1994. “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.”

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Before his days with the Patriots, Mr. Cunningham was a celebrated and seminal fullback at Southern California.

As a sophomore in 1970, he was part of USC’s all-Black backfield, along with quarterback Jimmy Jones and running back Clarence Davis, which was a first in NCAA Division I.

Mr. Cunningham (left), with USC teammate Anthony Davis.
Mr. Cunningham (left), with USC teammate Anthony Davis.Associated Press

In the season opener, Mr. Cunningham ran for 135 yards on 12 carries and scored two touchdowns in the Trojans’ 42-21 rout of predominantly white Alabama in Birmingham. His performance was credited with having influenced the university and coach Bear Bryant to more widely recruit more Black players and help fully integrate the sport in the South.

“What they saw was the ­future,” Mr. Cunningham told ESPN in 2016.

“It felt like he had 800 yards that night . . . it was awful,’’ NFL Hall of Fame offensive lineman John Hannah told the Globe in 2010. Before opening holes on the Patriots for Mr. Cunningham, Hannah was a Crimson Tide standout. “I’ve always said, Martin Luther King Jr. legalized integration in Alabama, and Sam made Alabamians want ­integration.’’

In 1971, Alabama had Black players on scholarship for the first time and played for the national title. The decade became a standout era for Bryant and the Crimson Tide as they went on to win or share three national championships.

“There are a lot of athletes who have done their share and more to end discrimination in so many ways,’’ said Hall of Fame receiver Lynn Swann, a teammate of Mr. Cunningham’s at USC. “But Sam opened a huge door in the South and in [the Southeastern Conference], which did more for minorities and young Black men to have the opportunity to play in the SEC and get an education.’’

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Mr. Cunningham earned All-American honors in 1972, when he captained the Trojans to a national championship. His record four goal-line TD dives against Ohio State in the 1973 Rose Bowl earned him game MVP honors.

“It became a bit of a legend with Sam going over the top of an offensive line,” Swann said. ‘’Nobody could stop him.”

Mr. Cunningham, scoring his fourth touchdown  against Ohio State during the Rose Bowl in 1973.
Mr. Cunningham, scoring his fourth touchdown against Ohio State during the Rose Bowl in 1973.Anonymous/Associated Press

He was inducted into the Rose Bowl Hall of Fame in 1992.

He ran for 1,579 yards and 23 touchdowns in his collegiate career, including 13 TDs in 1972.

Mr. Cunningham was a member of the College Football Hall of Fame and the USC Athletic Hall of Fame.

After his playing career, he worked as a landscape contractor in California; he had grown up in Santa Barbara. His brother, Randall, starred as an NFL quarterback for 16 seasons.

In addition to his brother, Mr. Cunningham leaves his wife, Cine, a daughter, Samahndi, and two other brothers Bruce and Anthony.

Throughout his career with the Patriots, Mr. Cunningham would often leave his teammates in awe.

“He was one of the most impressive physical specimens I’ve ever seen,’’ former quarterback Steve Grogan told the Globe, recalling when he, as a rookie, first met Mr. Cunningham in 1975. “He had broad shoulders, a small waist, and big legs. I thought, ‘Now this guy must be something.’ And he was.’’

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