Sam Cunningham addressed the team briefly at the end of practice Wednesday morning and attracted plenty of attention. The Patriots will induct Cunningham into The Hall at Patriot Place presented by Raytheon prior to Thursday night's preseason opener with New Orleans, and he was on hand for the joint workout.
He spent several minutes speaking withLaurence Maroney, a running back who coincidentally currently wears Cunningham's old No. 39. So, what did Sam "Bam" have to say to the former first-round pick?
"What advice could I give him other than play hard and have fun with it?" Cunningham said. "[Playing football] such a short time in our lives so you need to put as much time into as you can. Afterward you and your family get to appreciate what you did.
"[Maroney] kept saying, 'it's your number' and I was like, 'no, it's your number.' I said 'my number has my name on it and your number has your name on it.' I just want him to have fun and enjoy it because when you start you feel like it's going to last forever but it isn't, and when it's done you wished you had more time."
Cunningham remains the franchise's all-time leading rusher with 5,453 yards, most of which were compiled on some very talented teams in the mid-to-late 1970s. But it was Cunningham's impact off the field that Chairman and CEO Robert Kraft wished to focus on when discussing his team's latest member of the Hall.
"We had our 50th anniversary celebration last year and that was the first time Sam has been back since his career ended," Kraft said. "John Hannahmade a comment that was very poignant. He said that Sam Cunningham did more for integration than Dr. Martin Luther King in that area.
Cunningham came to Alabama when he played for USC and at the time legendary Crimson Tide coach Bear Bryant wished to integrate his team. When Cunningham had a huge game in a lopsided Trojans victory, many felt that was the impetus for fans in that area to be willing to accept integration.
"Bear Bryant* *was such an influential figure at that time," Kraft continued. "There was an advertisement for Coke where he was pictured as a parallel to Jesus walking on water. So, for Bear Bryant to have USC in town and for Sam to be so successful was a huge thing."
Cunningham was clearly flattered to be remembered nearly 30 years after his career ended in 1982.
"For me it means that the work we put in many years ago was appreciated," Cunningham said. "I came here 3,000 miles from California and didn't know what it was going to be like or how it was going to turn out. I got the opportunity to hook up with a lot of great players and coaches and we did as well as we could with what we had for as long as we could. For the fans to remember some 30 years down the line means an awful lot."
The big fullback also drew praise from Bill Belichick, who included Cunningham in his daily press briefing with the media before practice.
"[He is] kind of a guy that played at a time where a lot of people don't really probably right now appreciate what fullbacks were in the '70s and early '80s," he said. "[They were] guys that not only blocked, but ran the ball, caught it and really never came off the field. There wasn't a lot of substitution back in those days and Russ Francisand Cunningham and guys like that, they were on the field all the time, not just on first down or third down or those kind of specialty players. He was a big ball carrier, a hard guy to tackle, a very good runner, a good blocker, caught the ball well, very good in short-yardage and goal line. He just had an outstanding career professionally after his great career in college.
"Congratulations to him and certainly our team has a lot of respect for what he's done for this franchise in his career."
Cunningham spent his career toiling at the old Schaefer Stadium and spent his training camps out in Amherst, Mass., and at Bryant College (now University) in Smithfield, R.I. So, watching the Saints and Patriots go at it on the practice fields right in Foxborough behind Gillette Stadium was also a unique experience.
"To come here and see all these people … we had people watching our training camp but not like this," he said with a laugh. "We didn't have this much green grass on our fields, either. It's great to be back here and see how it's improved and changed. The Patriots have accomplished a lot over the years."