Photo courtesy of USC athletics
Through the years, there have been moments on courts, field and diamonds that transcended sports.
For college football, one of those moments came on this day 50 years ago. Led by running back Sam Cunningham, a Black student-athlete, USC blasted Alabama in Birmingham, 42-21.
In the contest, Cunningham rushed for 135 yards and two touchdowns for the Trojans. What the performance meant for Black football players was much greater.
Setting the Stage
Head coach Paul “Bear” Bryant’s 16th-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide team was still segregated when it made its way to Legion Field in Birmingham on Sept. 12, 1970. No. 3 USC was on the verge of becoming the first fully integrated college football team to play in the state of Alabama.
The Trojans were coming off a 10-0-1 season, Rose Bowl victory and top-5 finish in 1969. Alabama had finished a disappointing 6-5 the year prior.
As for the contest itself, USC dominated with 559 total yards. Cunningham, then a sophomore, was playing in his first career game.
Cunningham set the tone, scoring two first-quarter touchdowns. His scores from 22 and four yards out gave the Trojans a 12-0 lead after a quarter.
After a Ron Ayala field goal extended the lead to 15, Alabama found the end zone for the first time when Johnny Musso scored his first of two touchdowns from a yard out. The lead was cut to 15-7, but that was as close as the Crimson Tide would get.
Charlie Evans scored the next touchdown for the Trojans before three different USC quarterbacks threw touchdown passes down the stretch. USC led by as many as 29 in the victory.
The 1970 season wasn’t a memorable one for USC as it finished just 6-4-1, but the impact it had on college football was profound. Following the effort by Cunningham, more southern programs became open to the idea of recruiting black players. The eyes of Black athletes had also been opened to the possibilities of playing a southern schools that were not historically Black.
One disputed legend has it that Bryant took Cunningham into the Alabama locker room after the contest and said, “This is what a football player looks like.” Another famous quote often attributed to the Alabama coaching staff goes, “Sam Cunningham did more to integrate Alabama in 60 minutes that night than Martin Luther King had accomplished in 20 years.”
Regardless of the validity or origins of the quotes, Cunningham’s performance was monumental. Bryant had already began recruiting black players at Alabama. In fact, Wilbur Jackson, a Black player at Alabama, watched the game from the stands, because freshmen were ineligible to play in games back then.
A year later, John Mitchell became the first Black player to take the field for Alabama. His debut? A 17-10 upset of No. 5 USC in Los Angeles.