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Sam Cunningham

“Hope for the Best, But…”

 

The truly Great prepare for all the possibilities before they step on the field.

This weekend, Sam “Bam” Cunningham was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. In honor of that well-deserved honor and his Great career, we want to share a Moment of Greatness that helped define both Sam’s career and change college football.

On the evening of September 12, 1970, a watershed game was played in the Deep South. The University of Alabama, an all-white football team, hosted the University of Southern California, the only college team with an all-black starting backfield and the first fully-integrated team to come into Alabama and play Bear Bryant’s Crimson Tide.

That night, a sophomore running back played in his first college football game. His name was Sam “Bam” Cunningham and he wasn’t a starting player; he didn’t even suit up with the second team. Cunningham was a third-string fullback who had never even taken a snap on the collegiate level — yet he had spent the entire summer preparing for just such an opportunity. And it was about to pay off. Five plays into the game, legendary USC head coach John McKay looked over at Sam and signaled for him to enter the game.

While working on a book about that game, Turning Of The Tide, Cunningham told me he was “the most surprised guy on the sideline” when he heard his head coach call his name. But he knew he was ready.

SP1.SP.00f.0829.Sambam.L9.1Cunningham’s performance that night was nothing short of spectacular. He scored two touchdowns and ran for 135 yards on only 12 carries. USC dominated Alabama in a game that many credit with changing college football forever. “You just never know when opportunity is going to knock and the difference between success and failure is being ready when that knock comes,” Cunningham said. “I memorized the playbook. I studied. It wasn’t just physical, it was mental. When I entered that game, I didn’t do so with any fear or trepidation because I knew I was ready. I had prepared to succeed.”

Succeed he did. His performance made many in the stands finally recognize that in order to maintain its national prominence, Alabama needed to recruit African-American players. Jerry Claiborne, a Bryant assistant, is said to have jokingly remarked later, “Sam Cunningham did more to integrate Alabama in 60 minutes than Martin Luther King did in 20 years.”

Cunningham opened doors for African-American football players throughout the south. The following season, two black players wore Alabama uniforms and three more joined the team’s freshman squad. By the time the ’70s were over, Bear Bryant had completed the most successful decade in football, including three National Championships in 1973, 1978 and 1979 – with integrated teams.

cunningham3Cunningham played 10 years in the NFL and is still today the New England Patriots’ all-time leading rusher. His attitude and perseverance also served as a great example for his younger brother Randall Cunningham, one of the most successful African- American quarterbacks in college and NFL history.

Though he had a stellar career at USC, including helping lead his team to a National Championship in 1972, Cunningham acknowledged that the reason he was being inducted into the Hall of Fame was because of his efforts that humid night in Birmingham. “It’s exciting,” he said at the ceremony. “It’s otherworldly, because in the beginning, when I started playing football, and even when I got here, I didn’t have any idea what was going to happen. I played as hard as I could, and tried to compliment my teammates. It’s wonderful feeling to be honored, because it’s not just my honor, but it’s my family’s honor, and my [teammates’] also.”

A winning effort begins with preparation. -Joe GibbsIt’s an honor that came more than four decades later, as the result of carefulpreparation for one night. As Cunningham told me while we worked on the book, “I didn’t know that was going to be my opportunity to play, but I did know that when the opportunity came I had to be ready. In order for something good to happen, you have to be prepared. It’s been that way every day of my life.”

Tips from the Great Ones

cunningham5Sam Cunningham understands that preparation is not arriving to work 30 seconds early, it is getting there early enough that when Great things are expected of youthat you can deliver Great things. Before the game and on the sidelines, he studied every potential play that could be called. He was ready even though he didn’t know he needed to be.

One of the best ways to prepare yourself for whatever life throws at you is to create your own playbook. Consciously set daily, annual and lifelong goals for every aspect of your life. These goals should be realistic, but just beyond your reach so they are always a challenge. This will keep you motivated. Remember that the more you set out to do the more you will achieve. It’s a fact of human nature that the busier you are, the more you’ll get done. Think about the last time you were in a restaurant — you often get poorer service when you’re the only one sitting down and your server isn’t busy.

Apply this Characteristic: Consider your biggest project this week. Each morning, make a list of every step you will need to accomplish on the project that day and then consider what distractions might stand in the way. By carving out a few minutes to prepare in detail, you can create tremendous efficiency. Even though his football career is behind him, Cunningham still makes sure to write down every goal he wants to achieve as a business owner in southern California. Follow his lead by taking a moment to commit every one of your goals to writing. If you make this contract with yourself, your chances of successfully meeting those goals are much Greater. Referring to them often will also ensure that you never lose sight of what’s most important to you.

Prepare to succeed in every aspect of your life. It’s what the Great ones do.

Do you know a story of true Greatness from your community? I’d love to hear it! Please write to don@donyaeger.com to share it.

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About Don Yaeger

Don Yaeger

Don Yaeger is a Certified Speaking Professional (CSP), longtime Associate Editor for Sports Illustrated, 11-time New York Times best-selling author, leadership expert and executive coach.

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