When thinking of 1970s football, one of the first images that come to mind is hard-nosed, physical running. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, the New England Patriots had one of the premier physical running backs in Sam Cunningham. While Sam “Bam” Cunningham wasn’t on the level of a Franco Harris or Walter Payton, Cunningham was still a fantastic physical runner capable of breaking tackles and eluding defenders with ease. His all-around skill combined with his long tenure in a Patriots uniform makes him arguably the best running back in Patriots history.
The Patriots office here at Last Word on Pro Football has spent the off-season chronicling a different Patriots legend every week. Last week, we took a look back at Willie McGinest, the all-time playoff sack leader. This week, we take a look at the first true bell-cow back in franchise history, Sam Cunningham.
The “All-Black” Backfield
Long before he joined the Patriots, Cunningham was a part of a historical backfield at the University of Southern California. In 1970, Cunningham, quarterback Jimmy Jones, and running back Clarence Davis formed the first-ever all-black backfield in D1 NCAA football history.
Not only was the unit historical for racial reasons, but it was one of the best groupings in college football. The most notable game of that 1970 season came against an all-white Alabama team. Led by Cunningham, USC crushed the Crimson Tide by a final score of 42-21. This game reportedly was a major factor in convincing the University of Alabama to integrate its football team.
Cunningham’s collegiate success was not limited to the 1970 season, as he stood during his entire three-year tenure at USC. The Trojans won the national championship in 1972, with Cunningham earning All-American honors in the process. He capped that season off with a four-touchdown performance in the 1973 Rose Bowl, a record which still stands today. On the heels of that success, Cunningham declared for the 1973 NFL Draft.
Life as a Patriot
The New England Patriots selected Cunningham with the 11th overall pick in the 1973 NFL Draft, and the pick instantly paid huge dividends. Cunningham took control of the starting job in 1974, starting all 10 games in which he played. In those ten games, Cunningham ran for 811 yards and nine touchdowns, including a league-high 75-yard scamper.
Cunningham’s career steadily improved until peaking in the 1977 and 1978 campaigns. Cunningham recorded his first 1,000-yard season in 1977, finishing the year with 1,015 rushing yards. One year later, Cunningham was the leader of the best rushing attack in football history. The 1978 Patriots own a still-standing record for rushing yards in a single season (3,165 yards), and Cunningham was the leader of it all. Playing all 16 games, Cunningham recorded 768 yards and eight touchdowns while earning the first Pro Bowl nod of his career.
Cunningham retired following a 1982 season in which he recorded just 21 rushing yards. The former first-round pick spent his entire 10-year career with the Patriots, recording 5,453 rushing yards and 43 touchdowns. The Patriots honored his fantastic career, inducting him into the Patriots Hall of Fame in 2010.
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