Sam Cunningham was fast enough to have captured the California State high school championship in the 100-yard dash and strong enough to have won the shot put in the same competition. Former Patriot quarterback and backfield coach Tom Yewcic said of Cunningham, “ He was the ideal fullback at 6’ 2”, 230 pounds. He had tremendous ability and ran with power, and more speed than most fullbacks. If he hadn’t been injured so often I know he could have accomplished much more. He was special.”
Selected with the eleventh pick of the first round of the Patriots legendary 1973 draft Cunningham came to Foxboro with impressive credentials. Not only had he set a single-game record with four touchdowns in the 1973 Rose Bowl but he’d accomplished a far greater feat three years earlier in a game against the University of Alabama. After running roughshod over the Crimson Tide while leading the University of Southern California to a 42-21 victory in Birmingham fan reaction to Cunningham’s performance helped convince Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant to
integrate his team. Alabama assistant coach Jerry Claiborne summed up Cunningham’s achievement when he remarked, “ Sam Cunningham did more to integrate Alabama in 60 minutes than Martin Luther King did in twenty years.”
Apart from his superb running skills, Cunningham had developed into a superb blocker while clearing a path for Heisman Trophy winner Anthony
Davis at USC. Both Patriots head coach/general manager Chuck Fairbanks and chief scout Bucko Kilroy were especially impressed with
Cunningham’s athleticism and versatility. Their faith was soon rewarded as Cunningham had reporters comparing him to former Patriot power back Jim Nance and such all-time greats as Marion Motley.
Nicknamed “Bam” for his head-on running style Cunningham led the team in rushing as a rookie in 1973 with 516 yards and 5 touchdowns. His California license plates read “Sam Bam” and were among the most stolen plates in Massachusetts. Over the next six seasons, he’d lead the team in rushing five times while helping secure the once under-achieving franchise two playoff berths. In 1977 he enjoyed a career-best season while leading the team in both rushing with1,015 yards and receptions with 42.
Cunningham played his entire career in Foxboro and despite losing an entire season to injury (1980) retired as the team career rushing leader with 5,453 yards. He also remains tied with tight end Marv Cook as the 19th leading receiver in team history with 210 catches. His career highlights include his being selected to both the Patriots 35th and 50th-anniversary teams as well as his induction to both the College Football Hall of Fame and Patriots Hall of Fame in 2010. Cunningham died on September 7, 2021, at the age of 71.