Just over 50 years ago, the University of Southern California Trojans flew to Birmingham to face off against the Crimson Tide. On its face, this isn't particularly noteworthy, but this game changed college football history.
USC, an integrated team, beating Alabama 42-21 is largely crediting with shifting public perception in the South about ending segregation on the university's football team.
It was a game of chance, only made possible by the NCAA's decision to add an extra game to the schedule. No one knew this matchup would take on a life of its own, spanning decades like an urban legend -- least of all Sam "Bam" Cunningham.
Cunningham would eventually become a Patriots Hall of Famer and College Football Hall of Famer, but that night, he wasn't even sure he'd play. Ultimately, he did, and it was a memorable debut. In his first collegiate game, he ran for 135 yards and scored two touchdowns, but his performance did more than lead USC to victory. It helped change college football history.
In 1970, Alabama's football program had yet to integrate. No Black player had seen playing time on the varsity team. It was largely seen as a segregation holdout, proof that a football team didn't need to integrate to be successful.
That is until USC came to town a fully integrated team with an all-Black backfield. They dominated on Legion Field that night, and the loss has since become a full-blown legend in the region and beyond.
The following year, two Black players made their debuts for Alabama: John Mitchell and Wilbur Jackson.
In the decades since this game, the legend of Sam Bam Cunningham has taken on a life of its own. It's grown more exaggerated every time it's told and serves as an origin story of "The Turning of the Tide," to quote Don Yaeger's book title on this game.
On the latest episode of "Do Your Part," Cunningham reflects on this game, how the legend has grown over the last 50 years and what role sports can play as an agent of change in society.
Do Your Part
Do Your Part is an official Patriots podcast for players to dive into the issues and causes they are passionate about off the football field. From criminal justice reform to encouraging voting, Do Your Part will be a home to important and honest conversations with your favorite Patriots players.
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