‘Against the Tide’ no miss on Showtime, Friday, Sam ‘Bam’ Cunningham remembers

<p>“Against the Tide” is a remarkable documentary that shows how two larger than life men in the college sports world absorbed and understood the social changes of the times, and created a culture of acceptance in the lily white SEC Crimson Tide: University of Alabama.</p> <p>The documentary is laced with fantastic interviews and tales of a landmark football game that broke down the segregated Crimson Tide team, yet this filmed effort is hardly anti-Alabama. It presents the program and these two men, legendary coaches USC coach John McKay and Bama’s coach Paul “Bear” Bryant, in a respectful light.</p> <p>The title of this film is a summation of how Bear Bryant quietly sold the idea of an integrated University of Alabama football team with help from his golfing and drinking buddy, USC’s John McKay. USC, of course, had been integrated since the 1920s, although in some of the interviews the players note the conservative undertone of the USC program and prejudice against the idea of having a black quarterback.</p> <p>***image4:center***</p> <p> </p> <p>When the University of Southern California Trojans came to Birmingham’s Legion Field to open the 1970 season, rolling back the Tide in a solid 42-21 beat down, throngs of Alabama’s African Americans were listening outside the stadium, according to USC’s Sam Cunnigham. He tells Monsters and Critics, "There were about 72,000 people in the stadium, I didn’t seem many black faces. A majority of the black people were outside the stadium listening to the game on the radio."</p> <p>***image3:center***</p> <p> </p> <p>Sam "Bam" Cunningham had his breakout debut on that night in Birmingham, Alabama. Long known as Tailback U, Mr. Cunningham cemented his legacy for USC that night when the fullback from Santa Barbara rushed for 135 yards and had 2 touchdowns against an all white team in a relatively all white stadium.</p> <p>His performance in the game was reportedly a factor in convincing the University of Alabama to let Coach Bear Bryant integrate their football team.</p> <p>Jerry Claiborne, a former Bryant assistant, said, "Sam Cunningham did more to integrate Alabama in 60 minutes than Martin Luther King did in 20 years."It was much worse than the score indicates: If USC Coach McKay hadn’t begun subbing starters out in the third quarter, it’s suggested, the score could have been 100 to 0."</p> <p>USC – thanks in great part to their integrated team – were simply bigger, faster and stronger.</p> <p>Mr. Cunningham tells us he had no true sense of the importance this game had for Alabama’s black folks.  "Being a youngster, I was more in tune to playing a game as opposed to what was going around me. I’m from Santa Barbara, I grew up able to do what I wanted, I mean within reason, I had freedom and independence but I also understood the climate of the time, I wasn’t really worried about playing in Birmingham, I might have been naive but my most important motivation was to play well."</p> <p>Mr. Cunningham reflected on the moment. "I was only interested in playing good enough so I could play the following week since there was such stiff competition on that team… I did what I was supposed to do, it was a team effort"</p> <p>The setting of the game was a shock to the system. He says, "There was a police presence in Alabama when we arrived; we had an escort following the bus, which I later learned wasn’t normal. It was our first road game so we didn’t know that wasn’t the norm, it was only after that we realized it."</p> <p>"I knew I played well and scored two touchdowns, but it took years for the magnitude of the game to finally sink in. It’s only recently, about 35 years later that people are interested in this game, when Don Yeager, John Papadakis and I co-wrote the book about it, ‘<a href="http://www.amazon.com/Turning-Tide-Game-Changed-South/dp/1931722943">Turning of the Tide, How One Game Changed the South</a>’ added Mr. Cunningham.</p> <p>Mr. Cunningham and other skill players such as quarterback Jimmy Jones, the first black college football player to appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated, demonstrated that the future of college ball was one of inclusion. This pivotal game and their performances were the ammunition Bryant needed to face the regents of the University, so that he could deliver junior-college transfer John Mitchell, the first black to take the field for Alabama football, and running back Wilbur Jackson for the team’s first black scholarship player.</p> <p>Mr. Cunningham tells us there were repercussions to this game that were unexpected. "There was a lot of good that came from the game, but there was some bad that came with it too, After major colleges opened their programs, many black colleges had their talent pool depleted. They lost those players to the major universities in the South East." – A lot of of the depleted programs today are a direct result of that evening in Birmingham.</p> <p>***image5:center***</p> <p> </p> <p>The path for change was not easy for Coach Bryant, as the documentary points out he had to answer to historical political racial bullies like the late George Wallace, and the Commissioner of Public Safety for the city of Birmingham, Bull Connor, whose unrelenting acts of domestic terrorism committed against the city’s black populace are well documented. It was a decade of intense and violent social change, and Alabama lagged the rest of the United States in all areas of racial equality.</p> <p>Cheery All-America lineman John Hannah and others remain convinced the Bear knew what would happen. Some of the film’s stars like Joe Namath, who sets the early ’60s atmosphere with terrific stories about the Bear.</p> <p>McKay’s son John McKay Jr. also recounts a tale about a night his dad took Bear Bryant to then landmark restaurant Chasen’s in the outskirts of Beverly Hills. Frank Sinatra sent a note from the back, saying he’d like Bryant and McKay to come back and visit him at his booth. Bryant told the waiter, “Tell Frank he can come on up.” McKay says Sinatra was tableside in a minute later.</p> <p>Hannah, who was UA’s biggest player, tells us about how he was tossed around like a ragdoll by USC during this great game. “It was just, they just…it was scary.”</p> <p>Off season, the two coaches, Bryant and McKay were golfing and drinking buddies, but "Against the Tide" also does great service to the key players of the game.</p> <p>As for Sam "Bam" Cuningham, he’s just happy to have played in that first game and scored some points to bring home the win, and yes, help change the face of college football.</p> <p>Mr. Cunningham is now semi-retired. After his nine year career as a pro playing for the Patriots, he had a career in landscape construction back in Southern California. He has two daughters and one grand-daughter. He and his Trojan team mate, John Papadakis are currently working at getting their book made into a movie. Mr. Cunningham tells us, "its a story that needs to be told".</p> <p>That game was so pivotal that the running backs meeting room in the new McKay Athletic Center at USC is named after Cunningham. Think about it… with the powerful legacy of historic running backs at USC including Frank Gifford, Mike Garrett, Marcus Allen, OJ Simpson, Charlie White, LenDale White and yes, I will say his name… Reggie Bush, it is Sam Cunningham’s name on the door of the meeting room at Tailback U.</p> <p>Fight On, Sam!</p> <p>From Showtime:</p> <p><em>“‘AGAINST THE TIDE’ is a powerful commentary on the complex relationship between sports and race in American society,” said Stephen Espinoza, Executive Vice President and General Manager, SHOWTIME Sports. “We have a strong commitment to producing high-quality sports documentaries, and our first film with accomplished producer Ross Greenburg exemplifies this perfectly.”</em></p> <p>– <strong>Stephen Espinoza, Executive Vice President and General Manger, SHOWTIME Sports</strong></p> <p><em>"This game, and the integration of college football at Alabama under Coach ‘Bear’ Bryant, has been a fascinating and intriguing story for many years. It is our intention to focus on the truth, and let the viewer separate fact from fiction and myth from reality.”</em></p> <p><strong>– Ross Greenburg, Executive Producer</strong></p> <p><strong>“Against the Tide,” narrated by Tom Selleck, and will begin airing at 9 p.m. Friday, November 15, on Showtime. </strong></p> <p><iframe src="http://www.youtube.com/embed/Wv6_8OkNIrs" width="560" height="315" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen"></iframe></p>Note the date on this article may be incorrect due to importing it from our old system.

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