Memories of Sam Cunningham

Sam was a great athlete that I was fortunate to coach in my first-year coaching when he won the California State Meet in the shot put. I have fond memories of Sam the athlete. In 1970 in my first decathlon Sam also did his first and only decathlon. After that he turned his attention to football, where he was a legend. Looking back through the prism of time my fondest memories are of Sam the person.

Sam was special, a real leader, quiet and assured, he led by example. He had a presence. He was genuinely humble. He was an incredible competitor, refused to be beat. When asked about the famous Alabama game he sincerely said that he was not the only black athlete who played for USC, he said he just scored the touchdowns. The second week of track practice in 1969 at Santa Barbara High School Jesse Owens came to visit and talk to the team. At the end of his talk, he asked Sam to stand up. He recognized Sam for being an All-American in football and said that he heard he was a pretty good track athlete also. Sam was embarrassed to be singled out, he said thank you Mr. Owens and sat down. That was Sam.

When I found out that Sam had passed yesterday morning I cried. My wife and I started reminiscing about our four-hour car ride in my VW bug after the Fresno decathlon in March of 1970. Imagine all 6’3” 225 pounds of him stuffed in the front seat with my fiancé, Melissa in the back seat with the bags, shot put and discus. We started laughing because Sam kept asking, he if she had enough room. His knees were up to his chest in the front seat. He kept us entertained with his stories of his freshman football season and how he was looking forward to spring practice starting the next week. Ke kept kidding Melissa, who was a student at Stanford at the time, that USC would never lose to Stanford when he was there. I remember him saying that he knew each day of spring practice would be harder that the decathlon he just finished. My other memory of the trip was of the Jackson Five playing on the radio, Sam liked them. Anytime I hear the Jackson Five I think about Sam.

Sam all of us who knew you were blessed. Thanks for being who you were. You never let any of the success go to your head. You always remembered your roots and those who helped you. Sam the world is a better place because of you. RIP and God speed, your memory lives on.