Legendary Patriots fullback Sam Cunningham passes away at 71

FOXBOROUGH, MA - NOVEMBER 12: Running back Sam Cunningham #39 of the New England Patriots (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)
FOXBOROUGH, MA - NOVEMBER 12: Running back Sam Cunningham #39 of the New England Patriots (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images) /

Before Tom Brady and Bill Belichick ushered in an era of unprecedented success, one of the most iconic players in New England Patriots history was fullback Sam “Bam” Cunningham, who was one of the league’s more effective sledgehammers for a half-decade due to his absolutely bruising and punishing style of running.

The older brother of Eagles quarterback Randall Cunningham, Sam was able to translate a dominant college career at USC into a very successful pro career, as the 6-3, 230-pound ball-carrier was too big for defensive backs to tackle and too fast for linebackers to keep up with.

Unfortunately, tragedy has befallen the Cunningham family, and a Patriots organization that is already grieving the loss of wide receiver David Patten at the age of 47 now must cope with the death of a true icon who has his name plastered all over the franchise’s record book.

USC confirmed that Cunningham passed away earlier on Tuesday in Inglewood at the age of 71. The cause of death is not known at this time.

Sam Cunningham is a USC legend and Patriots record-holder.

Before he was selected 11th overall in the 1973 NFL Draft, Cunningham, along with quarterback Jimmy Jones and running back Clarence Davis, became part of Division I football’s first All-Black backfield. He won a national championship and famously took down a highly-ranked, all-white Alabama squad during his time with the Trojans.

His performance against Alabama is widely considered a defining factor in Bear Bryant’s decision to integrate Southern football.

With the Patriots, Cunningham ran for 5,453 yards, a mark that still stands as the best in New England history. His 43 rushing touchdowns are second in Patriots history behind Jim Nance.

Some of his most impressive achievements with New England include running for 1,015 yards in 1977, making the Pro Bowl in 1978, and helping set the record for most rushing yards by one team in one season in 1978 (3,165), which held for over 40 years until Lamar Jackson came around.

Trojan quarterback Matt Leinart honored Cunningham, citing the tremendous impact he had on the program. No. 39 will remain one of the most treasured numbers in USC history because of Cunningham’s contributions, and the Patriots Hall of Fame inductee was without question the best skill position player in New England in the 1970s.

The Patriots have had some very noteworthy names suit up in their backfield, but when considering only the contributions that they made in Pats colors, Cunningham tops them all. We extend our condolences to Cunningham’s family and the Patriots organization after losing such a legend.

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