Decades before Lynn Swann became the athletic director at USC, he was a star wide receiver there. In fact, he was so good that the Pittsburgh Steelers made him the 21st overall pick of the 1974 draft — with Swann later becoming a Super Bowl MVP and Hall-of-Fame enshrinee.
But long before that happened, Swann played on what some persons consider the greatest collegiate team ever — the 1972 Trojans, who not only were undefeated but were the nation’s No. 1-ranked team, with none of their 12 opponents that season within 10 points of them.
Swann was surrounded by an abundance of talent at USC, with many of his former teammates going to the NFL. So, as part of our College Draft series on the latest Talk of Fame Network broadcast, we asked him which of them was the most talented.
“There are a lot of guys who could fit that category,” he said, “but probably none more than Sam Cunningham, who was a fullback … number 39 … drafted in the first round to the New England Patriots. I think he was placed on their wall of honor or their Hall of Fame.”
He was. In fact, he was a 2010 inductee to the Patriots’ Hall of Fame.
But Cunningham (nicknamed “Bam”) was more than a great player. He was a pioneer. In 1970, he was part of the Trojans’ “all-black” backfield, along with quarterback Jimmy Jones and running back Clarence Davis, that put a 42-21 beatdown on an all-white Alabama team in Birmingham, Ala., with Cunningham running for 135 yards and scoring twice.
“Sam Cunningham,” said then-Alabama assistant Jerry Claiborne, “did more to integrate Alabama in 60 minutes than Martin Luther King did in 20 years.”
The impact of that game wasn’t lost on Swann.
“He was a star fullback in a game that USC played in 1970 against Alabama,” he said of Cunningham, “that really was the key and the impetus for Bear Bryant to recruit black athletes at the University of Alabama, unlocking the opportunity for many African-American young men to play in the SEC.”
Cunningham, the older brother of former NFL quarterback Randall Cunningham, would go on to a productive NFL career, playing his entire career with the Patriots and gaining a Pro Bowl selection in 1978.