Sept. 7 (UPI) -- Former USC Trojans great Sam "Bam" Cunningham, who later became the New England Patriots' all-time leading rusher, died Tuesday at his home in Inglewood, Calif., it was announced. He was 71.
No cause of death was given.
"We are deeply saddened to learn of yet another loss to the Patriots family this week and our hearts ache for Sam Cunningham's family and all who are mourning his passing today," Patriots owner Robert Kraft said in a statement. "Sam 'Bam' Cunningham was one of my favorite players throughout the '70s and my sons all loved him.
"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."
#FightOnForever, Sam "Bam" Cunningham.
The All-American fullback, Rose Bowl MVP and College Football Hall of Famer, whose performance in USC's 1970 win at Alabama has often been credited with helping integrate Southern football, died on Tuesday in Inglewood. He was 71.— USC Trojans (@USC_Athletics) September 7, 2021
Cunningham, who was enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame in 2010, is widely recognized for his role in helping speed up the process of integration in football programs across the South.
As a sophomore in 1970, Cunningham rushed for 135 yards and two touchdowns as the Trojans defeated an all-White Alabama team to start the season. His performance, coupled with those of his Black teammates, played a key role in Crimson Tide head coach Bear Bryant's decision to recruit Black players.
In the 1971 season, Alabama had Black players on scholarship for the first time and competed for the national championship, with the Crimson Tide going on to win multiple titles under Bryant.
Cunningham earned All-American honors in the 1972 campaign, when he captained USC to a national title. The fullback ran for 1,579 yards and 23 touchdowns in his Trojans career.
The Patriots selected Cunningham with the No. 11 overall pick in the 1973 NFL Draft. He went on to play nine seasons for the franchise, finishing as the team's all-time leading rusher.
Cunningham was named to the Pro Bowl in 1978, when the Patriots established a league-record 3,165 rushing yards as a team. That mark stood until 2019, when the Baltimore Ravens eclipsed it.
Cunningham ended his NFL career with 5,453 rushing yards and 49 touchdowns. He retired after the 1982 season.
He was later inducted into the Rose Bowl Hall of Fame in 1992, the USC Athletics Hall of Fame in 2001 and the Patriots Hall of Fame in 2010.