Cunningham, who died Tuesday at age 71, was an extraordinary athlete — probably the best to ever grace the playing fields of Santa Barbara. But he was also the best kind of ordinary.
He was called “Sam Bam” for the explosive contact he created on a football field. But he made those he touched off the field feel special, too — from his teachers and coaches, to family and classmates, and even to the janitor who cleaned his locker room.
Cunningham, the son of Sam Sr. and Mabel Cunningham, would return home and play a game of catch with the kids in his old, Eastside neighborhood just to make it clear that he was still one of us.
Pat Moropoulos, the wife of one of his coaches at Santa Barbara High School, was so fond of Cunningham that she insisted on knitting his socks during his time with the Dons. It was her way of having him wear the family colors.
He also inspired her husband, the coordinator of the Dons’ defense, to fashion a special position for Cunningham. He called it “free linebacker.”
“We let him do whatever he wanted,” Mike Moropoulos explained. “He hit so hard, we wouldn’t let him tackle people in practice.”
Sam Cathcart, Cunningham’s head coach at Santa Barbara High, called him “Scoop” for the forceful way his facemask would gouge the Peabody Stadium turf when he hit the ground.
The Dons went 26-4-3 during Cunningham’s three seasons on varsity (1966-68), winning the Channel League championship each time. He scored 39 touchdowns, including 19 during his senior year to set career and single-season records at Santa Barbara.
He also achieved the remarkably dissimilar feats of running 9.9 seconds in the 100-yard dash and throwing a shot put 64 feet, 9 inches — a heave that won the state championship — during the track-and-field season of 1969.
“He was really some kind of athlete, big and fast and smart,” Cathcart said. “In the open field, he could leg it out to the goal line. And he had the best attitude of any kid you could imagine.”
That attitude came first to mind when Moropoulos was asked to list Cunningham’s greatest traits.
“I’ve never heard Sam say a derogatory word about anybody,” he replied. “I don’t want to get sentimental, but Sam’s greatest talent is being a great person.
“There are other guys who are 6-3, 220 pounds and run like a deer, but how often do they show such character and humility?”
He did etch his name into the history books during his collegiate debut in the fall of 1970. His 135-yard, two-touchdown rushing performance led USC to a 42-21 rout of Alabama in Birmingham. In the eyes of many, it convinced the South to accept Black athletes.
The first Black football player took the field for the Crimson Tide the next season.
He won First-Team All-America and Rose Bowl MVP honors during the Trojans’ 12-0, national championship season of 1972.
Cunningham always called that team his favorite, but not because it went undefeated. He relished being part of a senior class that put an emphasis on team.
“The underclassmen had egos,” he pointed out, “but the senior leadership kept them in line.”
Cunningham’s team mindset came through even when he was asked about that culturally transformative game in Birmingham. Quarterback Jimmy Jones and tailback Clarence Davis, he noted, were also Black.
“I still think it was the effort of our whole team that opened their eyes,” he said. “I was only 20 years old. I just wanted to play football and have a good time.
“Coming from California, you don’t think of white and Black.”
He continued on to become an All-Pro fullback and the all-time leading rusher of the New England Patriots during his decade in the NFL.
But Cunningham never ran in the fast lane of Simpson’s Hollywood. He never had to run from the law, either. “Super Sam,” as Moropoulos liked to call him, was no “Super Fly.”
Cunningham often credited Franklin Elementary School teacher Bill Van Schaick for keeping him so grounded.
“When I was a little kid in his class, he got me really straightened out,” he said during his heyday with the Patriots. “He taught me what was right and what was wrong, and he made me believe it.
“He taught me and showed me so many wonderful things — the fun of hiking and backpacking, how to get along with other kids, how to play baseball and football. You could say he taught me what life is all about, that it can be fun and interesting and useful. He showed me how to get along with people.”
Van Schaick would invite Cunningham and his schoolmates into both his home for meals and into the backcountry for overnight camping trips.
The path home for Cunningham in the decades that followed would always include a stop at the Van Schaick home.
“He loved all of us,” he said. “He made good kids out of us.”
Cunningham kept his own family close. His induction into the Santa Barbara Athletic Round Table Hall of Fame, coming just a few years after the death of his parents, was a melancholy experience.
“I wish Mom and Poppa could be here to see me get this award,” he said softly during his induction speech.
Cunningham mentored his three younger brothers, helping the youngest in his own journey to the NFL. Randall Cunningham wound up becoming an All-Pro quarterback for the Philadelphia Eagles and Minnesota Vikings.
“He could throw such a sweet ball; it was very easy to catch,” Sam once said. “When I was with the Patriots, and he was in junior high, I worked out with him and our other brothers.
“Randall would throw, I would run patterns, Anthony was a linebacker and Bruce a defensive back.”
He finally got to see Randall play in a real game for Santa Barbara when he was holding out for a new contract with the Patriots.
“One of the highlights of me not playing is being able to see my brothers play,” Sam said. “That was a change, having things focused on them and not me.”
He had a smile the size of a football when he said it.
— Noozhawk sports columnist Mark Patton is a longtime local sports writer. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Noozhawk Sports on Twitter: @NoozhawkSports. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook. The opinions expressed are his own.