Cunningham recalls historic game vs. Alabama
NEW YORK — It was years after Sam Cunningham ran roughshod over the last all-white Alabama football team that he understood the significance of the game between Southern California and Bear Bryant's Crimson Tide in 1970.
"I realized that it was something very, very special when I'd be around black men who grew up in the Deep South and grew up underneath the culture of the time and they would get to talking about it," Cunningham said Tuesday. "I'd see the sparkle and joy ... in their eyes and their voices. That prompted me to understand how important it was and how historic it was."
Cunningham, who is black, ran for 135 yards and two touchdowns on 12 carries that day in Birmingham and USC beat the Tide 42-21. The next year, Bryant's team was integrated.
It was the first game of what turned out to be a Hall of Fame career for Cunningham, who was among 14 former players and coaches to be inducted in the college hall at the National Football Foundation's award banquet Tuesday night.
Among the other inductees were the late Pat Tillman of Arizona State, former Wisconsin coach Barry Alvarez and 1991 Heisman Trophy winner Desmond Howard of Michigan.
"I had some great coaches and great teammates," Howard said at a news conference Tuesday morning at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. "It's definitely an honor for me to be going into the Hall of Fame as part of the Michigan family."
The other players inducted were the late Dennis Byrd of North Carolina State; Ronnie Caveness of Arkansas; Ray Childress of Texas A&M; Randy Cross of UCLA; Mark Herrmann of Purdue; Clarkston Hines of Duke; Chet Moeller of Navy; and Jerry Stovall of LSU and Alfred Williams of Colorado.
Gene Stallings, who coached at Texas A&M and won a national title with Alabama in 1992, was also inducted.
Comedian Bill Cosby, who was on the Temple football team in 1961, received the NFF's gold medal, the organization's highest honor.
"The reason why I'm here is the current athletic director said to me, 'Oh, Billy, do you know what this means?' And I said no because I haven't done anything. We played Division 12,'" Cosby said during a five-minute riff that had those in a packed ballroom cracking up. "I would have like to have had a helmet in those days."
Former NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw received the NFF's Distinguished American award.
The story of Cunningham's game against Alabama has grown into the stuff of legends — not all of it verifiable fact.
The story goes Bryant planned to start integrating his team and he scheduled the game with USC to prove a point to the Alabama fans who were resistant to the idea.
Bryant had already begun recruiting black players. In fact, one of the first black players at Alabama, Wilbur Jackson, was in the stands at Legion Field that September day John McKay's Trojans came to town.
Cunningham grew up in Santa Barbara, Calif., and had played against all-white teams many teams in high school. He was a sophomore in 1970, freshmen didn't play back then.
"Little did I know so much was riding on this game and little did I know I was going to get a chance to play," the 60-year-old Cunningham said in an interview after the news conference. "My motivation that day was to play and play well just to get a chance to play another day, but it went way beyond that."
Another tall tale about that game was that Bryant took Cunningham to the Alabama locker room after it was over and told his players "This is what a football player looks like."
That's not true, but there's little doubt Cunningham's performance was a milestone moment in college football.
"It has afforded a lot of black athletes the opportunity to play wherever they want to play," he said.
Tillman played linebacker for Arizona State from 1994-97 and went on to an NFL career with the Cardinals. After three season in the NFL, he enlisted in the Army. He was killed in Afghanistan in April 2004, a victim of friendly fire, though the military at first said he died in an ambush.