The Day That Changed Alabama... Or Did It?

Feb. 22, 2006

By Adam Wodon


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·          CSTV's Black History Month presented by NAVY

Of all the entanglements associated with the integration of Alabama football - and ultimately football throughout the entire South - that took place through the '60s and '70s, few have held more power than the story of Sam "Bam" Cunningham.


Cunningham, a black sophomore player at USC, came in with his Trojans for a game in 1970, and proceeded to run roughshod over the all-white Crimson Tide in a 42-21 pounding. The story goes that legendary Alabama coach Paul "Bear" Bryant was so stunned and overwhelmed by Cunningham's 135-yard, two-touchdown performance that Bryant became convinced to start recruiting black football players.

Watch CSTV's Special: Tackling Segregation: The 1970 USC-Alabama Game

Fact is, Cunningham's day, though a great story, had little, if anything, to do with Bryant's recruiting. This story of Alabama's integration appears to be more or less a local legend.


After all, the man that became the first black athlete to play football at Alabama was already recruited before the famed 1970 USC-Alabama game was played.


"I was already on scholarship. I was in the stands watching that game," said Wilbur Jackson, a fullback for the Tide who went on to a career in the National Football League.


Jackson had grown up thinking of playing for USC, because it was long an integrated team and the type that was always on television. But USC didn't come calling. Alabama, in fact, was the first that offered a scholarship, the school's first to a black football player.


All of the political maneuverings that led to this moment were not something too prominently on the mind of an 18-year old. All he knew was that he wanted to get an education and play football, and Alabama gave him that opportunity, for free.


"I had no idea (of the political ramifications)," Jackson says. "I was going to school. My father worked in railroading. He put both sisters through school -- one was at Alabama State as a senior, and the other was at Alabama State as a freshman. For my father, it was kind of tough. My brother joined the military.


"So here I am, and I have a chance to get a scholarship. Alabama was the only school to offer a scholarship."


By that point, the groundwork had been laid. It was seven years after Governor George Wallace stood at the steps of a building on the campus and tried to stop the U.S. National Guard from integrating his state's university. "Bear" Bryant had fought through all of that, and was probably more powerful than the governor anyway. But Alabama had won three national championships in the '60s with all white players, and the governor used that as a campaign tool.


It wasn't until the team started getting mediocre that Bryant believed he could finally seize the opportunity, even going so far as to schedule a game with John McKay's USC Trojans, knowing his integrated team might open some eyes. For as irascible as Bryant could be, he knew the timing was right, and he knew people wouldn't get too upset about it so long as his team was winning football games.


Jackson came to Alabama in this environment, but hardly stopped to think about it then.


"There was 13,000 students on main campus and I'm thinking probably 250 blacks," says Jackson. "It was seven years later (after the Wallace incident). And I look back at it then, and that's the same door that I'm going in there to play basketball, and going in there to register for classes.


"You think about it for just a second. At 18-19 years old, things (like that) don't stick with you."


And Jackson never had a problem.


"Coach Bryant said, 'If you have a problem, come to me, we'll see what we can do.'" Jackson recalls. "And I got to say that during the entire time, I never had to go see Coach Bryant. All the guys were class. Bryant was always a class act. There was an article with an interview of (legendary 'Bama quarterback) Ken Stabler. He said Bryant told them there will be some black guys coming out for the team, and 'we want them treated the same way you were treated.'"


Whether or not Bryant had already put Alabama football on the path to integration, it can still be said that Cunningham's performance in that fateful game at least opened the eyes of the fans of Alabama football. So that part of the legend is true - Cunningham's performance did have tangential impact.


"I can think back to the preparation for that game," says Jackson. "Sam was a sophomore. Alabama coaches knew nothing about him. The focus was on Charlie Davis because he was the tailback. The defense was geared to stop him.


"Davis was from Birmingham originally, but he didn't come (to Alabama). So he ended up in L.A. So from that standpoint, it opened some eyes."


Lo and behold, in 1971, the teams met again. And this time around, Alabama's momentous moment came in the form of victory, as it knocked off No. 1 USC, 17-10 in Los Angeles.


Jackson went on to a successful career at Alabama, playing in three major bowl games -- the Cotton Bowl, the Orange Bowl, and then for a national championship against Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl during his senior year.


Alabama lost all three of those games, but the Tide went on to win three national championships in the '70s.


Jackson went on to play fullback in the NFL, first alongside O.J. Simpson during Simpson's waning years in San Francisco. Then he played for the Washington Redskins, and was a member of the 1983 Super Bowl champions. He was hurt, however, in the season's first game -- but that was the season with the eight-week strike. He returned for the playoffs, and played special teams during the Super Bowl. It was his last professional football game.


Today, Jackson still lives in Alabama. After his NFL career ended, he and his wife opened a commercial cleaning service near his hometown. In 2000, his alma mater, Carroll High School in Ozark, Ala., retired his number. And with a daughter in graduate school at the University of Alabama, Jackson has done well enough for himself that he is ready to retire when his 55th birthday rolls around in November.


Jackson has the sound of a man content and comfortable with his life's choices.


"My daughter, 30 years later, is in grad school there. If I had a bad experience there, there's absolutely not way I'd have wanted her to go there."


Whether any of the Sam "Bam" Cunningham legend is true, no longer matters.


Yes, Jackson was already there on campus, already recruited. But USC's performance that day at Legion Field, certainly opened the eyes of Alabama residents and football fans.


The cynical desire to win football games may have motivated Alabama residents to accept black players, but Bryant knew this, and knew the timing was right to take advantage of it. And his advantage was to the benefit of all.





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