Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

CONFERENCE CALL; A Loss Helped Alabama Grow Up

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

CONFERENCE CALL; A Loss Helped Alabama Grow Up

Article excerpt


All Sam Cunningham wanted to do was play football, but the USC running back became a harbinger of change at the University of Alabama.

Cunningham was a member of the Trojans team that played the Crimson Tide on Sept. 12, 1970 at Birmingham's Legion Field. Alabama coach Bear Bryant scheduled the game knowing the Crimson Tide would lose, but he hoped the result would help fans realize that the school needed to accept black players in order to compete on the national level.

Cunningham and former USC teammate John Papadakis teamed with author Don Yaeger to write Turning of the Tide: How One Game Changed The South to tell the story of the game, and Cunningham is comfortable with the way his role in desegregating Alabama football is portrayed.

"I'm probably a little bit uncomfortable how I'm portrayed in the sense compared to Martin Luther King, but I'm comfortable with that because I didn't go in to it trying to be that [a harbinger of change]," Cunningham said this week during a telephone interview with the Times-Union. "I became that from the performance of myself and the team that evening."

The book tells a story of what happened after the game - although some of the participants have conflicting accounts.

Bryant went to USC's locker room to meet Cunningham and asked him to come to the Alabama locker room. There, he reportedly had Cunningham, who rushed for 135 yards and two touchdowns on only 12 carries, stand in front of the Alabama players as Bryant said, "This is what a football player looks like."

Cunningham said he doesn't remember that happening, but he does remember meeting Bryant.

The importance of what happened that day, however, cannot be disputed. The game forced Alabamans to accept the fact that black football players belonged on their campus.

The impact of that game has faded over time, and there aren't many black football players today who realize its significance.

"No, they don't understand," Cunningham said. "There's no reason for them to understand it. They don't have to go through any of that. They can play and have dreams of going to the University of Alabama, the University of Georgia, Auburn University, schools that 30, 40 years ago you could dream about but it could never happen. …

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