No cause of death was immediately available.
Cunningham, who was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1992, is widely recognized for helping speed up the process of integration in football programs across the south. Cunningham ran for 135 yards and two touchdowns as USC beat an all-white Alabama team to open the 1970 season. That performance, coupled with those of his Black teammates, was pivotal in Alabama coach Bear Bryant’s decision to recruit Black players.
One of Cunningham’s best performances for the Trojans came in the 1973 Rose Bowl, when he ran for four touchdowns, earning MVP honors, in a 42-17 win.
Cunningham was drafted No. 11 overall in the 1973 NFL draft by the Patriots and went on to play nine seasons for the team, becoming the franchise’s all-time leading rusher. He finished his NFL career with 5,453 yards rushing and 49 touchdowns before retiring after the 1982 season.
He was inducted into the Rose Bowl Hall of Fame (1992), USC Athletics Hall of Fame (2001) and Patriots Half of Fame (2010) following his playing career.
“Sam ‘Bam’ Cunningham was one of my favorite players throughout the ’70s and my sons all loved him,” Patriots owner Robert Kraft said in a statement. “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.”
Cunningham is survived by his wife, Cine, daughter Samahndi, and three brothers, Bruce, Anthony and former NFL quarterback Randall.