So it isn’t every day you get to meet a hero of your youth.
Way back when I was only 22 years old, aside from my parents, my heroes were Willie Mays and Robert F. Kennedy. A baseball player and a politician, but not cartoon characters.
I briefly shook RFK’s hand the day before his assassination. And I stood up and joined in on a spontaneous standing ovation as a retired Mays walked up my aisle at Dodger stadium.
But today, I played a round of golf with another hero, Sam “Bam” Cunningham.
And okay, back in The Day on September 13, 1970, I’d just finished Year One of Cardinal & Gold D-School. And who knew some two decades of my loving an educational institution, the horse, and the fight song could go straight down the tubes after interacting with a bunch of DDS-type instructors for only a few months?
Instead of living the dream I was fantasizing the crime. It soon became clear to me way too many clinical faculty-types had only seen the first half of Full Metal Jacket (even though the film wouldn’t be released until 1987.) I started visualizing my unlikely DDS degree made out to “Dr. Undeserving Freaking Little Maggot” instead of the name my Momma gave me.
I was on the verge of doing something really desperate…like becoming a powder puff blue bruin sympathizer or even worse…whatever that could possibly be. University of Spoiled Children my …; it was more like U Stupid Clown, you will never ever pass the State Board.
Nightly, driving home going east on The 60, I’d be thinkin’, “Here Traveler; I got your toothbrush.”
But on September 13, 1970 the LA Times’ Sunday morning Sports Page headline read “Hatred Shut Out as Alabama Finally Joins the Union.” Have to tell ya; I had chills then and now. And maybe I was slightly bloodied but I wasn’t bowed. I was proud to be a Trojan.
USC’s integrated football squad had visited segregated University of Alabama in Birmingham the night before. Led by USC’s black sophomore fullback, Sam Cunningham, the Trojans defeated the all-white Crimson Tide 42-21. According to myth, legendary coach “Bear” Bryant took Cunningham to the Tide locker room after the game to show his team what a football player looked like.
LA Times’ Pulitzer Prize winning sports columnist Jim Murray (okay, another hero) wrote, “On a warm and sultry night when you could hear train whistles hooting through the piney woods half a county away, the state of Alabama joined the Union. They ratified the Constitution, signed the Bill of Rights. They have struck the Star and Bars. They now hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal in the eyes of the creator.”
Within the year, Alabama and the Southeastern Conference were integrated. 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." But Cunningham wasn’t focusing on civil rights on the trip back to Birmingham; he was definitely concerned about hanging on to the football.
Sam “Bam” Cunningham became an All-American and a first round NFL draft pick; he enjoyed a very successful professional football career with the New England Patriots. Cunningham is a member of the Rose Bowl Hall of Fame, the College Football Hall of Fame, and The New England Patriots Hall of Fame.
And yeah, yesterday, I played golf with Sam “Bam.” And I’ve played better golf. But I’ve never more appreciated my time spent on a golf course.
These days, as always, true heroes are the folks who sacrifice to make a difference for others. They sign up to put their lives on the line, carry someone’s mother out of a burning building, or take the time to love the children they raise to be responsible adults.
Public heroes remain a figment of my youth. And maybe it’s our age of pervasive observation, instant communication, and evaporating privacy, but today big-name heroes seem to play to teenage audiences on a screen, not in the flesh.
Well, now I can say I’ve shaken Sam’s hand, shared a golf cart and some missed putts, and joined a hero of my youth, trading some trash talk with our esteemed opponents, Cal State University, Los Angeles big shots Henry Etheredge and Doc Ralph Dawson.
As our foursome hung out over some Arnold Palmers after eighteen rather athletic holes, I just sat back and enjoyed the war stories going back to family, teammates, and the neighborhood. The conversation then moved on to some sacred core values such as respect, responsibility, punctuality, and the value of doing the right thing.
It was clear Sam had listened to his parents and was committed to passing the life lessons forward to his own children.
During the round, Sam never hit a bad shot that raised even an eyebrow, never mind his voice. He just owned the shot, made the best of the situation, and moved forward. Sort of reminded me of the way a certain greatest generation handled life.
It’s not every day you get to meet a hero of your youth…only to realize when you were a kid you were smarter than you thought you were.