Loss of a legend

When the phone rang and the caller shared that Patriots Hall of Fame running back Sam Cunningham had passed away, my first thought was surprise and sadness, but then I thought about his teammates and fellow Hall of Famers.

I shared the news with Steve Grogan, then later spoke with John Hannah and Steve Nelson. One of them referred to Cunningham as a “beast” on the field, but that was the only football comment made. They all just instantly spoke about how we lost a great guy.

I was young when Cunningham played for the Patriots. I obviously remember him as a player, but my dealings with him came in my role at the Patriots Hall of Fame. If I called Sam to see if he would speak to students during Black History Month, he quickly agreed. If we wanted him to sign something to give to students participating in an essay contest, he’d say send whatever you need and I’ll send it back.

When he visited Foxborough, it was like we were lifelong friends. Sitting with Cunningham and Hannah and listening to them talk about how Sam’s 1970 appearance for USC in Tuscaloosa against Alabama helped integrate football in the South is something I’ll never forget. Then Sam sent me a signed copy of Turning of the Tide, which he co-authored with Don Yaeger and John Papadakis. I share this only because I was glad I got to know Sam over the last 15 years. I am better off for it. I think others who knew Sam would say the same. — Bryan Morry

Below is the Patriots press release regarding Sam’s passing:

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – The New England Patriots are deeply saddened to learn of the loss of Patriots Hall of Fame running back Sam Cunningham. Cunningham, the franchise’s all-time leading rusher, was affectionately known as Sam “Bam” Cunningham. He was inducted into the team’s Hall of Fame in 2010 and was a member of the Patriots 50th Anniversary Team.

“We are deeply saddened to learn of yet another loss to the Patriots family this week and our hearts ache for Sam Cunningham’s family and all who are mourning his passing today,” said Patriots Chairman and CEO Robert Kraft. “Sam ‘Bam’ Cunningham was one of my favorite players throughout the ‘70s and my sons all loved him. After I bought the team in 1994, it was my honor to welcome him back to the team on multiple occasions, recognizing him as a 50th anniversary team member and again for his induction into the Patriots Hall of Fame. As much as I admired him as a player, my affection for him only grew after spending time with him and learning more about him as a person. He made a tremendous impact, both on and off the field, and was beloved by his teammates. As a Patriots Hall of Famer, Sam’s legacy and contributions will be preserved and celebrated forever, but today his loss is felt with heavy hearts.”

A consensus All-America running back who helped Southern Cal win a national championship in 1972, Cunningham was drafted 11th overall by the Patriots in 1973, the second of three first-round picks joining John Hannah (4th overall) and Darryl Stingley (19th). He played for the Patriots for nine seasons, appearing in 107 games from 1973-79 and 81-82. The 6-foot-2, 233-pound fullback led the team and set a then-rookie rushing record for the Patriots that year with 516 yards and four touchdowns.

The following year, he was averaging 4.9 yards per carry and over 80 yards per game before a broken leg abruptly ended his season after just 10 games. Despite missing the final four games of the season, Cunningham was still selected as the team’s MVP. He finished the year with 811 yards rushing on 166 carries with nine touchdowns, just 14 yards shy of the team lead. It marked the only season in his first seven seasons with the Patriots that he did not lead the team in rushing.

In 1976, Cunningham averaged 4.8 yards per carry to lead the Patriots to one of the greatest turnarounds in NFL history, as the Patriots rebounded from a 3-11 finish in 1975 to qualify for the playoffs with an 11-3 record the following year. Cunningham had his best statistical season in 1977 when he became just the second player in franchise history to rush for over 1,000 yards (1,015). He also led the team in receiving that season with 42 receptions for a career-high 370 yards. While 1977 was his best statistical season individually, the following year’s contributions remained in the NFL record book for 41 years until Baltimore set the new record in 2019. That season, Cunningham led a quartet of rushers who powered the Patriots to a combined team rushing record of 3,165 yards.