by Steven Travers
American Reporter Correspondent
San Francisco, Calif.
October 8, 2007
LEGACY: HOW A FOOTBALL GAME CHANGED A NATION
LOS ANGELES -- The University of Southern California opened the 2003 season at Auburn. U.S.C. Coach Pete Carroll invited Sam Cunningham and John Papadakis to make the trip and to speak to the team aboutt the 1970 game in the state they were now playing in - a state that had been changed by the events of that day, and by the men speaking to the team now. Southern California then smoked the Tigers, 23-0.
Over the course of the next few years, the legacy of the 1970 USC-Alabama football game began to take on new historical dimensions. With the rise of arroll's dynasty at Southern California, new interest in all things U.S.C. took shape across a Trojan Nation.
U.S.C. ascended to a place in which their football past could finally be said to have passed Notre Dame as the greatest collegiate tradition of all time. Books, documentaries and numerous retrospectives from the Los Angeles and national media re-captured past glories. Of all the glories - national championships, Heisman Trophy winners - Cunningham and Troy changing the "complexion" of America, as Craig Fertig quoting John McKay called it, proved to be their finest moment.
The game had not simply changed football. It had changed America. The 2004 George Bush victory over John Kerry symbolized the new power of the South culturally and politically. It was the South's ability to find "the better angels of our nature" which gave the region the chance to move forward. While Bush may have once been a symbol of Southern pride, it was the ghost of Paul "Bear" Bryant that hovered above him.
For all of Cunningham's greatness on the field; for all of John McKay's progressivism and Marv Goux's spirit; it was Bryant who had been confronted with it; thought it over; and like a salmon swimming against the stream made it happen by force of his personality.
Whether he told Sam, "This here's what a football player looks like"; whether he should have or even could have done it earlier; whether he did it out of true altruism or to make his football program regain its lost footing; why, none of that matters. He stands like a Colossus over this event and the rise of the American South. Other figures - Huey Long, Lester Maddox, George Wallace - pale in comparison to Bryant and his place in history, on and off the field.
Among post-Civil War Southerners, only Presidents Lyndon Johnson, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter affected American history to a greater extent.
"And we went down and our backfield was all black players, our wide receivers were both black, our tight end was black," recalled Fertig on "The History of U.S.C. Football," (DVD, 2005). "Alabama had no black players. Bear Bryant by design, these two had worked on this so that black players would be able to stay in the South and play for Coach Bryant.
"Now our guys, people ask us now, was that a big deal? It wasn't a big deal, the black-white thing with our players, we were scared to death because it was our first football game and Alabama was good. Our guys knew how good Alabama was but it was not a big racial thing, it was no racial thing whatsoever.
"It was a football game, and that's what I think is great about football whether you're pink, blue or green; everybody has the same chance and usually the best players will win. We went down there and beat the devil out of 'em, and I was walking with Coach over to Coach Bryant, and like I say they're great friend s off the field, they played golf together. Coach McKay even went huntin' with him, even though he didn't know which end of the gun to use, and I was expecting Coach Bryant to be really upset, and he says, 'John, I just want to thank you for what you've done for me and the University of Alabama.'"
"Martin Luther King Jr. preached equality," said Ozzie Newsome, who in the aftermath of that game became a black All-American and 'Bama legend under Bryant. "Coach Bryant practiced it. I'm not saying he couldn't have done more to integrate the football team faster, but when I was there, there were no complaints from black players about unfairness from Coach Bryant. I can tell you that the man practiced what he preached."
"Nothing changed over the weekend of the 1970 Alabama-Southern California game," said Professor Wayne Flint of the University of Auburn, "but you could see it start to change. As Churchill said of Dunkirk, it wasn't 'the beginning of the end, but it was the end of the beginning.'"
"The point of the game is not the score, the Bear, the Trojans; the point of the game will be reason, democracy, hope," the great sportswriter Jim Murray said in the Los Angeles Times. "The real winner will be Alabama."
USC honored Cunningham in 2005, the 35th anniversary of the game, with a Sam "Bam" Cunningham Commemoration Day. "Bam's impact not forgotten," was the headline of an accompanying story by Bob Keisser in the Long Beach Press-Telegram on September 12, 2005. The jump-page headline read, "Bryant changed ways quickly," accompanied by a photo of Bear with the caption, "Initially opposed to recruiting black players, Alabama coach Bear Bryant changed his tune after Sam Cunningham ran for 135 yards on 12 carries in a 42-21 USC victory."
This indicates that Bryant was opposed to the recruitment of blacks, despite the evidence to the contrary, and that it was Cunningham's performance that made him "change his tune." Not true. Wilbur Jackson was already recruited; the game was set up for this purpose.
"Bryant briefly met with Cunningham on the field, and although recollections on what exactly transpired are inconsistent, the upshot is that Bryant reiterated, time and time again - to his players, to the media, to Alabama fans - that 'This is what a football player looks like,'" wrote Keisser.
"I by no means think I did more than Dr. King or any social activist, because I didn't," Cunningham said. "Those people lost their lives for what they did.
"I just played a football game, and the outcome affected great change. Sometimes in that naVve manner, that's the best way... . By what he said, Bryant was impressing on his players that there's going to be change, and that it would be tough for all of them, not just the players coming in but the players already there, and the whole community. But it would be a change for the better.
"It had to be hard for people there to see that because it had been just one way [all white] for so long. We put a whipping on them. They couldn't put a spin on it. Their team got beat and no matter how you wrote it up, you couldn't change that fact."
"The reality is that football, and sports, is about excellence, and winning results from that, and black kids have historically excelled in sports," said Dr. Maulana Karenga, professor of black studies at Long Beach State. "So [Bryant] would have been making a mistake not to choose from all of the best players. He wanted to win. It was important to him.
"It provided much collateral benefit. By not practicing in sports the kind of early man segregation that was unjust and immoral, his excellent decision also became an excellent moral choice."
"It was a pretty bold step," said Cunningham. "Bryant was the only one who could guarantee our safety, and Coach McKay had to have faith in Bear that he could bring his players, fans and boosters in for a football game at a time when it probably wasn't conducive.
"They both took a very big step. But it was the easiest way to get it done.
"Back then, coaches were icons and could do whatever they wanted to do. It wouldn't have ever happened any other way."
Wilbur Jackson (1971-73), John Mitchell (1971-72), All-American center Sylvester Croom (1972-74), linebacker Woody Lowe (1972-75), cornerback Mike Washington (1972-74), tight end Ozzie Newsome (1974-77), center Dwight Stephenson (1978-79), defensive stars Thomas Boyd, Jeremiah Castille, E.J. Junior and Don McNeal followed at the University of Alabama.
"It's pretty simple," said Cunningham. "We flew in, played and won a football game and left. We only had to deal with the South for two nights, and then we were gone.
"The people who actually had to work and deal with the change were the ones they recruited and played. Because nothing had changed other than allowing blacks to play football. The way people felt probably didn't change overnight. The difference was that blacks now had the opportunity to be part of the organization.
"They had to work in that atmosphere, and there's a lot of pressure to be the first, or second, or third, player to come into a culture they've never visited before. I applaud them. What I did was easy. They had the pressure of the whole culture riding on them."
"What all of those athletes and other African-American athletes in similar situations, from Jackie Robinson to Jack Johnson to Muhammad Ali, did was create free space for everyone by demonstrating their excellence without penalty," said Dr. Karenga.
Sam cast himself as a man trying to keep the memory alive, not as a noble person, "a black man in decidedly the wrong place at the right time," wrote Keisser.
"Sam is like so many others, an ordinary person who did an extraordinary thing and met the invitation of history," said Dr. Karenga. "He seized a moment at a time when the last thing the people in that crowd probably wanted to see was a black man excel."
John McKay said he had no idea what it was about, but he was a "poker player," always holding his cards close to the vest. He knew what it was all about.
When Bryant proposed the game, it took USC's coach all of two seconds to accept, then counter-offer with an invitation to Alabama to play at the Coliseum in 1971 for more money. Since Bryant was the athletic director (McKay would become USC's A.D. in 1972, but already had the authority to schedule the game) and the 11th-game opponent had not been chosen by either school, he had an "inkling" of what to expect. The fact that Alabama was segregated and USC was integrated was like a proverbial elephant standing in the corner of the Horizon Room of Western Airlines when Bryant arrived for their meeting. USC carried star black players from New Jersey, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and California. The best black athletes in the world were from the Golden State. One of the first black quarterbacks in the NFL, Doug Williams, had grown up a Trojan fan because McKay had used a black quarterback, Jimmy Jones.
"I told [assistant coach] Marv Goux that I didn't know what Bear was up to, but the whole thing had the feel of a spy novel," McKay recalled in 2000. "Bear asked if the Trojans would like to travel to Birmingham to open the following season. The NCAA had just granted an 11th game, and Bear wanted that game to be against us on their home turf. I agreed to the match-up. What I didn't realize was that it was all part of Bryant;s own plan to desegregate his program.
Despite his popularity, he'd never been able to do it before, despite his desire to. He'd expressed to me that he'd wanted to do it for years. I can't say that I knew Bear's intentions fully at the time, but I did suspect it. It was a delicate situation and required just the right timing; but if any man understands how to do something like that, it was Bear Bryant."
"I can say with absolute certainty that Bear Bryant wanted to integrate his football program long before that game," said longtime college football broadcaster Keith Jackson.
McKay and Fertig were on their second or fourth round of drinks when Bryant arrived. A martini and history followed. Fertig later asked McKay why Bear wanted USC for the first game. McKay told Fertig that Bear chose his Trojans to help "change the complexion," as Fertig later recalled it, of college football.
"Bryant 'walked on water' in Alabama," McKay said. "He could have been governor had he chosen to run. He could have been king."
Bear Bryant suspected that USC would blow them out. Beyond that, the game proved to be a seismic shift in American sports, politics, society, and Southern sensibilities. It was the Magna Carta of civil rights, encapsulating in one evening the hopes and dreams of African-Americans. It gave life to the struggles of Selma, Montgomery, and Birmingham. It might as well have been John Hancock's signature giving imprimatur to the-then 5-year-old Civil Rights Act.
What made the game successful not just for McKay, Sam Cunningham, and the Trojans, however, was the fact that the trip was peaceful, the team well treated, and fan reaction went from visibly semi-hostile to outwardly docile. "Bryant had talked the game up," said assistant coach Marv Goux, in what may have been the last interview he granted prior to his passing. "It was his baby. And if Bear was for it, the state of Alabama was willing to accept change.
"After Sam's game, Alabama was able to use [recent black recruit] Wilbur Jackson." By the mid-1970s, "the Southeastern and Southwestern Conferences were desegregated," continued Goux. "Earl Campbell at Texas, Billy Sims at Oklahoma - the whole region changed dramatically overnight. It was great, even though we found recruiting to be harder after that."
"Oh my, recruiting changed, yes," McKay recalled. "There was a time in which we could pluck black athletes from anywhere in the country. They wanted to play for the Trojans. Jimmy Jones from back East. O.J. Simpson from San Francisco. Tody Smith from Texas. It was a combination of things. They heard that USC accommodated blacks, that life there was pleasant in every way - the school, their classmates, the press and fans, everything - and they were right. It provided an urban environment, nightlife, and pretty girls of different races. Plus, they knew that the coaches were fair, and if they measured up, they would play and get all the recognition they earned. If their goal was to play in the NFL, USC was a place that showcased their talents.
"Over the next 10 years, USC and other West Coast teams no longer could pick black stars who were turned away in the South," McKay noted. "You see not only Alabama's resurgence after a down period, but the rise of teams like Georgia, LSU, and all those Florida schools. USC eventually went into a down period of their own, as did the whole conference, and one of the reasons for this is because the talent pool became limited."
"What people forget about Sam when they talk about this game," Goux said. "Is that he was a sophomore battling for a starting job. He was a big recruit, yes. He was built like a brick you-know-what. But we were loaded, and John McKay was not promising starting jobs to sophomores. It was his first game, and considering the environment, McKay wanted to play it close to the vest. Look at the highlights of that game. Off-tackle, boom-breaking tackles, running over guys. Sam just made an outstanding contribution on his own.
"Plus, Sam was from Santa Barbara. I grew up in that area too. It's a very low-key area. He didn't have any idea, really, about what was happening in places like Selma. He was still a kid, barely away from home for the first time when that game was played."
Goux was not at the C.R. Roberts game in Austin, having graduated one year earlier, but he had the unique perspective of being C.R.'s teammate and Cunningham's coach at Birmingham.
"C.R. was a competitor," Goux said in 2000. "A man like that, when he earns something, he's gonna take what's his without asking. That was our philosophy at USC. We played clean, we played hard, we played to win. Defensive standout Tody Smith, the brother of Bubba Smith, had grown up in Texas. He was extremely worried about the Alabama game. Many of the California blacks, unaware of race relations in the South, were less concerned.
Running back Clarence Davis was born in Birmingham. Bear Bryant knew all about him. The black press in Birmingham made a big deal of him. McKay had needled Bryant about how he had managed to go right under his nose and recruit a player like that.
"Davis was a typical example of our advantage at that time," said McKay. "Today he'd've finished school in Alabama and been up for grabs, probably in the SEC. His family left that environment, and we just got him to succeed O. J."
When the 42-8 blowout was over, nobody in the state of Alabama could deny any longer that in order to compete for a national championship, black players would have to play in the SEC. 'Bama fans knew that the many black high schools in the South produced great athletes. They had seen them go to Big 10 and Pac 8 schools. They had seen many of them go on to stardom in the NFL, the NBA, the Major Leagues, and the Olympics. They knew that Grambling was a traditional all black college football powerhouse, but in the 1970s, their already-legendary head coach Eddie Robinson would be facing some stiff recruiting competition right in his backyard. They knew all these things, but like that proverbial elephant in the corner, they had chosen silence. Silence was now replaced by buzz, argument, and change.
Cunningham's performance in the face of pressure and adversity convinced many that blacks not only possessed the physical ability for the game but the mental acuity as well. This fact was accentuated by the fact that USC was led by a black quarterback, further negating the myth that African-Americans could not play this position because of its leadership requirements.
The actions of Bryant immediately after the game were the most telling. He did enter USC's locker room and asked a surprised McKay if he could "borrow" Cunningham. What happened next is up for debate. Whether the rest is truth or lore may never really be known. Whether it happened like some say it happened, or as the storytellers say it happened, is immaterial. The rest was history.
In the years after the game, Bear elevated his program back to the top of the college football world.
"Alabama came out to the Coliseum the next year," recalled McKay, "and they gave us a big surprise. They had a terrific team that year." Bryant's 1971 squad played through an undefeated regular season before losing to Nebraska, considered one of the best teams ever, in the Orange Bowl. His 1978-79 national champions, by then fully integrated, are considered to be one of the great football dynasties of all time, marred only by a 1978 loss in Birmingham to Charlie White and USC.
Cunningham had propelled his team to victory in a contest that changed the minds, the attitudes, and the hopes, dreams, and expectations of a new generation of Americans, white and black. In Dixie, there is the world before and then the world after this game. The results of this game are clear: goodness, decency, and justice prevailed. After this game, hatred was benched, and a nation lived up to its creed.
"That's what Jim Murray wrote in the Times," recalled Goux. "You know, at the time, I had my hands full. So did Coach McKay. We were talented but unable to build on that game. Our season was disappointing. The team was not as together as others were, although talent-wise we were close. But it was only over time, the media bringing it up, old friends talking about it and asking about it, that I've come to see just what an incredible event it was. I made some strong statements about it at the time, but remember, right after we won that game, we had to fly back to L.A. and get ready for the next one, and the one after that. Sports is hard to be involved in and see the big picture."
What had happened, whether Goux was too busy to see it or not, was that a region looked into its collective Christian conscience and knew that they could no longer interpret the Bible from a racist perspective. For the Greek-American USC linebacker John Papadakis, who found himself as the liaison bridging the volatile black-white world that still divided the Trojans, it fulfilled the Platonic ideals that shaped his life and gave it meaning. Schools in the South, from kindergarten to law school, became diverse centers of learning. Politicians who had practiced race baiting integrated their staffs and courted black votes from newly enfranchised citizens. The Democratic Party, unable to completely shed itself of its Jim Crow past, lost the South to the Republicans, who rode their conservative, anti-Communist agenda to sweeping victories for Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush.
Today, the South is part of America. Its college and pro teams are as diverse as anybody's, with hardly any notice. It can be argued that the American South, by its own will (with some prompting, to be sure) has made a more positive change for the better, in less time, than any geographical region on the face of the earth. If such change could happen there, hope springs eternal everywhere. As the world deals with the problems of religious hatred, intolerance, and terrorism, this is a worthy thought.
On December 7, 2003, the day after No. 1-ranked USC assured themselves of a spot in the Rose Bowl against Michigan (and with it, a chance at the national championship), the New York Times' influential African-American sports columnist William Rhoden wrote that one of the reasons he wanted the Trojans to win the national title was, "...so the nation can be reintroduced to Sam Cunningham. He is my favorite" Trojan and an important player in the social evolution of college football.
He and his former teammate John Papadakis joined the team on a charter flight last August when the Trojans traveled to Alabama to play Auburn in the season opener. Cunningham said he addressed the team.
"I told them I'd never lost a game in Alabama," he said. "I don't want this to be the first."
"I tell them, 'I'm a warrior just like you - just old and broke up now - but when I was playing, this is how I approached the game. Football is more entertainment now. There's more money. But in the trenches, it's still just a football game.
"I'm really connected to this team. This is a little more personal because I know them. None of them knew me when I played; they weren't even born. They just see my picture on the wall. They walk past it going out. They walk past it coming in. I get a chance to share with them."
The South did "rise again." Today, they are a cultural, economic, and political juggernaut. This rise, in keeping with the sporting nature of the region, often had an athletic component. In 1996, Atlanta hosted the most multi-cultural event ever devised, the Olympic Games that the ancient Greeks placed so much reverence in.
In observing the sweep of history, one makes note of social change. There is, of course, the rise of Christianity, the granting of civil liberties to English commoners, the Protestant Reformation, and the Renaissance, to name a few highlights. Most of these changes took place over decades, sometimes centuries.
In America, change occurred by comparable warp speed. For thousands of years, slavery was a thriving economic institution. Four score and seven years after the creation of America, it was a memory. What other nations had in a few cases done, tried to do, or contemplated doing, Americans actually did do.
The lesson of all this is that for whatever reason - whether it be God, or a superior political system, or very smart, hard-working, well-meaning people of faith and charitable hearts - when the United States decides to do something, they do it righter, better, faster, and more thoroughly than any other country has ever possibly conceived of doing it.
Nobody can argue that Alabama in 1978 was paradise for African-Americans, but one can argue that in the eight years between the USC-Alabama games at Legion Field, the state, the region, and its university had made as swift and sure a social change for the better as any place, perhaps ever.
This change, when one considers the scope and power of its magnitude and then makes note of the swiftness of its time frame, can only be considered an American miracle - the kind we increasingly have come to rely upon!
This change, in light of the memory of Bull Conner, firehouses, and German Shepherds just 15 years before, was cataclysmic. It is the kind of change that makes men and women find religion. It was deep, personal, and real.
Jeff Prugh, who had written the 1970 game story for the L.A. Times, discovered that night at Legion Field that "there's more to write about than sports."
He had moved into news reporting and transferred to his paper's Atlanta bureau. Eight years before, he was observing blacks barely edging their way into a slightly open door; now, he now found himself dealing with blacks in control of many of the levers of power. Prugh, who possessed a Californian's liberalism, found himself at odds with Andrew Young and the new black leadership in Atlanta. When Prugh's quest for truth led to his criticism of that black power structure, he was assailed. Blacks no longer needed the "protection" of a "friendly" white journalist like Jeff Prugh to prop them up with fake self-esteem. The blacks were now discovering that they were part of the competition that makes America hum right along.
Black advancement in politics has surpassed demographic expectations. Today, blacks are mayors, congressmen, police chiefs, university presidents, and Fortune 500 executives. No blacks have ascended to the White House yet, and they have made few gains in the Senate, but it is now considered standard form to include in Presidential cabinets and judgeships a number of not just blacks, but minorities of every kind.
In surveying American culture, one might even conclude that there is a distinct advantage, at least in some professions, to being black. Blacks complain that they too often do not get the juicy, hero roles in Hollywood. There is some truth to that. Denzel Washington has broken through in a big way, but he is relatively, for now, exceptional. However, commercials and character roles sometimes seem to favor the black persona. A typical, recurring example would be the high-strung, high-wire white cop who is shown the steady course by a tough-yet-fair black police chief or partner (think of Nick Nolte and Eddie Murphy in "48 Hours" or Mel Gibson and Danny Glover in the "Lethal Weapon" franchise).
Blacks and other minorities often fill commercials and "sidekick" roles. A scene of social friends is often not considered complete without a black face. A common trend, especially in tv ads, is to portray a white Dumbellionite subordinate to the all-knowing black colleague, who usually is computer-wired to the nth degree.
There is no doubt that it is a major advantage to be a black conservative in politics, business, talk radio and a number of other professions. White people have come to open themselves up to black success, black intelligence, and black congeniality. Observing America and the world in 2006-07, it would be Pollyannaish to say that racial prejudice was defeated, any more than terrorism or drugs have been defeated. But the world is a vastly different place today, and if one studies the subject hard enough, they might not find any place like the American South in the 37 years that span 1970 to 2007.
Southern sportswriters have there take on the evernt, whether it be Allen Barra, Keith Dunnavant, or the Birmingham Post-Herald's Bill Lumpkin, who in response to recent books and movies depicting the event wrote, "I'm sure the abundance of Alabama fans in the Legion Field crowd of 72,157 left the game that night saying to themselves: We've got to have a Sam Cunningham. I'm sure Bryant had the same thoughts. Who wouldn't?
" ... Did Bryant schedule the game years in advance, hoping a postive impact by USC black players might hasten integration of his football team?
Lumpkin went to on to state, truthfully, that the game was scheduled because of the McKay-Bryant friendship, and correctrly pointed out that Bryant had no way of knowing that a black Trojan running back would dominate his team. But he also did not realize what had happened in some of those California high school coaching clinics, when McKay and Bryant, out of the earshot of others, sharing a late night drink, confided in each other their most secret hopes and desires.
Lumpkin attempted in his commentary to state that because black athletesplayed professionally in the NFL, the minor leagues, and by 1970 with the Atlanta Braves and Atlanta Hawks, for example, that segregation was over. "An ironic twist to the Cunningham premise is that a month earlier the New York Jets and Buffalo Bills played an exhibition game at Legion Field," he wrote. "A player on the Bills teams was one of the greatest running backs in USC istory by the name of O.J. Simpson.
"The year before, another former USC running back played Legion Field with the Kansas City Chiefs. Mike Garrett. In 1968, the Chicago Bears brought a fellow named Gayle Sayers to town."
Yes, Reggie Jackson had played for the Birmingham Barons, where Bryant's own son was a club executive. The point, however, is not that segregation was over. It was ending, but it was not over. The 1970 USC-Alabama game was the final nail in its coffin Sam Cunningham was embarrassed to hear Marx Goux say on that September day in Birmingham that he had done more for civil rights in the past three hours than Martin Luther King Jr. had done in 20 years. He is still embarrassed to hear the phrase repeated, as it has been by many people over the decades.
But Sam knows that the current racial climate he lives in is markedly better than it was then, and that Dr. King's legacy is the one most responsible for this climate. He also knows that he deserves to feel proud of his role in the scheme of things. He knows that what he did was exceptional; and he understands now, after years of searching, that what he did is deserving of a special place in American history.
"Once you get people together, once their sweatin' and workin' together, whether their black or white, that falls down," said Bryant museum curator Taylor Watson in the 2006 CSTV documentary Tackling Segregation. "That's one of the great things about sports. It has done that. It has taken an obstacle and just smashed it to the ground."
"Even the most ignorant and bigoted individual has to respect talent," stated Sylvester Croom. "He has to respect courage. He has to respect discipline. All the lies, all the myths, on both sides, goes away. It's all erased, except for what's inside of you."
"Did it radically change things over night for black people?" asked Allen Barra rhetorically. "No, but it was the beginning. It changed for the fans, for the mindset of the people, in Alabama and all over the South."
"We played eight linebackers looking for someone who could tackle him [Cunningham]," recalled former assistant coach Pat Dye, laughing. "We never found one who could tackle him." Dyne reflected on Bryant's legacy, smiled and added: "Coach Bryant is to the South what ... Martin Luther King is to the world."
"This game affected all of the South," said Charles Young. "This game affected the North. This game affected the East. This game ... some people call it a shift, a paradigm shift. It was philosophies being challenged. That's what this game is."
"I think the ending was perfect," said Craig Fertig. "Coach Bryant won one, Coach McKay won one. They shook hands."
On the night when Papadakis and Cunningham arrived in Alabama for the 2003 USC-Auburn game, they were stunned to discover that Sam was a well-known hero to the local black populace. Their first hint was when an African-American cab driver refused to take their money. Waiters stared at him like he was "The Sam Cunningham," according to sportswriter Don Yaeger.
William Wagstaff, the headwaiter at the Sahara that night, told Yaeger, "I remember it ... and everyone I know remembers it ... I had to say thank you. I wanted to thank him for what he did that night for us."
One by one, employees of the Sahara came out to shake Sam's hand.
"He told me about how he'd read that stuff in the paper about me," Clarence Davis, recalling Bryant's post-game graciousness, told the Los Angeles Times, "about how I used to live in Birmingham and how I thought about what it would be like to be one of the first black players at Alabama. He said to me, 'If only I had known about you two years ago. I was hoping you might not be very good, but now I'm a believer.'"
"This was the game that changed the game," said U.W. Clemon, who had filed the lawsuit against Bryant for failing to integrate his program. He did not attend the game, but his African-American friends described the attitude of white 'Bama fans as "a Damascus Road experience for many of them."
In Jeff Prugh's September 14, 1970 post-game report for L.A. Times, he reported overhearing a conversation at a Birmingham hotel coffee shop.
"You know," said a man in a plaid shirt, "I sure bet the Bear wishes he had two or three of them Nigra boys on his team now. They were huge!"
"The hospitable folks of Alabama began to leave Legion Field with 11 minutes to play between the Crimson Tide and USC Saturday night," wrote Bud Furillo in the L.A. Herald-Examiner. "And some may have been wondering if it might not be a good idea to search for some black running backs.
"It would appear at this stage in the evolution of man that the darkest people run fastest. Heck, they should. They have more practice."
No Alabama media outlet had made mention of race in the immediate aftermath of the game. There were no editorials suggesting that integration might just help the Tide roll faster. But if they were hoping to "sweep it under the rug," they would not be able to since, to use another cliché, the "horse was out of the barn." Perhaps the best example of the new thinking came in Bryant's 1974 autobiography, "Bear: The Hard Life and Good Times of Alabama's Coach."
Bryant's view of black athletes seemed to mirror his view of his own hard-scrabble life: "The ones who will consistently suck their guts up and stick by you now are the blacks, because they don't have anything to go back to ... Bo Schembechler of Michigan told me once, 'A black won't ever quit you,' and I got to thinking the way it had been for me, and he was right. Because I didn't have any place to go either." "Birmingham will never be the same," wrote Jim Murray. "And brother, it's a good thing. The point of the game will not be the score, the Bear, the Trojans; the point of the game will be Reason, Democracy, Hope. The real winner will be the South. It'll be their first since the second day at Gettysburg, or maybe, The Wilderness."
The following Thursday, in a column titled "Language of Alabama," Murray wrote, "Time to time, when I visit a neighboring country to the South, I try to pass on to you some of the key phrases which will help you to get along in a strange tongue ... Alabama is a body of land separated from the main body of the United States by a century."
Murray continued with a "non-Berlitz course," but in a rare lack of eloquence the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist appeared small and churlish, paying for it by virtue of a flood of angry letters to the Times over the next couple of weeks. In the years after he wrote that, Murray was happy to discover that the South indeed had grown up, and he was more than pleased to eat his words.
Birmingham-born Florida State coach Bobby Bowden felt that Bryant used the game to "change the minds of Alabama fans," he said.
"It is an honor to be a part of it," Sam Cunningham said in 2006. He was quoted by Don Yaeger stating: "The thing about games is that if you go out and play really, really hard and play as well as you can and do the things you need to do, you never know when the hand of greatness is going to touch you.
"That night I had no clue that anything was going to happen because of my play .... My motivation was to play well enough so that I could play the next week. That was it. It had nothing to do with changing color lines, doing anything like that. But you never know when you will get the chance to do something special."
"Cunningham could not have spoken out against segregation any more forcefully if he had been preaching from a pulpit," Sports Illustrated wrote in assessing the game to be one of the "20 Great Tipping Points" in 20th Century sports annals. "Alabama football, the Southeastern Conference and the South in general would never be the same. Even those 'Bama fans who didn't find the football program's racist policy to be hateful now saw that it was impractical."
For years, the myths surrounding the game outweighted the truths. The Atlanta Journal & Constitution reported incorrectly in 1992 that the night o f the loss, Bryant told his staff to "begin recruiting black players." Of course, he already had begun doing that.
Warren Koon of the Tuscaloosa News actually reported that as USC left the field, they had a stash of actual Confederate money, which they threw around the field like confetti, all the while "whooping and carrying on like it was Gettysburg or something ... "
This is completely untrue. There was absolutely no Confederate money, and the Trojans departed the field quietly, with the usual class and dignity of a team that coaches like to say acts "like we've done this before," because they had.
"I think there were coaches at that time who wanted to integrate because it was right," recalled Grambling's legendary former coach, Eddie Robinson.
"There were people like that. But I think most coaches, especially at big Southern state schools, integrated out of necessity. They realized there were many black players who were future All-Pros with great speed, size, quickness and intelligence. If they couldn't get them at Alabama or Mississippi, then those guys could end up playing against them, just like Nebraska [with Johnny Rodgers] and USC beat Alabama.
"So it wasn't so much a matter of what they felt about integration; it was mostly about wanting to win. If they could convince the alumni that their school could win with this black student-athlete, then the alumni might understand what it would mean to their program for this person to play."
"Having a black head coach at Mississippi State University is in many ways the final nail in the coffin of the kind of segregation for which the state and the region have been known for so long..." wrote William Ferris, the senior associate director at the Center for the Study of the American South (and co-editor of The Encyclopedia of Southern Culture) at the University of North Carolina, in a December 12, 2003 editorial heralding the hiring of Sylvester Croom.
"Through the history of the last 60 years of our country, the state of Alabama has been a spot where a tremendous amount of significant cultural, social, spiritual events have occurred," Carroll told his team before introducing Papadakis and Cunningham prior to the momentous 2003 opener at Auburn. "For whatever reason, in this small rural state, there have just been significant things that have happened. I'm not going to stand here and try to recount them all because I can't.
"Sometimes people think about football as just a game. Sometimes it is more than that. We all have our own little chance at making a statement in our lifetimes and for our football team at this time, if you haven't realized it, this is an extraordinary opportunity for us right now."
Carroll went on to describe to his players how Bryant wanted to bring "the University of Southern California to the South, to the Deep South," to make "a social statement. Anything could have happened that night. It could have been volatile, it could have been ... Anything could have happened."
Cunningham was given the floor and said he was merely an older version of the young men in the room. Later, Carroll pulled a surprise from his pocket: a grainy video of the actual 1970 game. It was not a televised game; the feed was from the coaches' scouting film, but absent the sounds of the crowd or a droning announcer. The impact of Cunningham running over and through the Tide was even more powerful.
Making sense of what happened is easier said than done. In many ways, the Greek ideals of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle were as alive on this day as they had been on the Parthenon some 3,000 years before. The argument that Christian love propelled great change is easily accepted by some, less so by others.
The forces of capitalism and democracy are attractive theories depending on whom they are being presented to. Perhaps placing the event into an easily understood niche is not possible, and instead we are left with the immortal words of William Shakespeare, who once wrote, "There are more things on Heaven and earth, Horatio, than can be dreamt of in your philosophy."
What is known is that the U.S. was already a shining example of liberty and freedom to the world - despite prejudice, despite Vietnam - when in September 1970, liberalism and conservatism met at the 50-yard line at Legion Field, in some ways for the last time. The winner was America.
This article is excerpted from Steven Travers' new book, "One Night, Two Teams: Alabama vs. USC and the Game that Changed a Nation" ((Lanham, MD, 2007: Taylor Trade Publishing. $16.47). Now in development as a movie, the story of how the 1970 football game between the Trojans and Crimson Tide helped open the doors of Southern integration.
Steven Travers, is a longtime AR Correspondent and USC graduate who played professional baseball for the Cardinals and A's. He is author of 10 books, a Hollywood screenwriter and guest speaker at his alma mater. Write him at mailto:USCSTEVE1@aol.com.