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The Sports Report: USC and college football great Sam Cunningham dies at 71

Sam Cunningham runs the ball for USC against Oregon. He finished with 187 rushing yards and a 65–yard TD.
Sam Cunningham runs the ball for USC against Oregon. He finished with 187 rushing yards and a 65–yard touchdown.
(Times Archives)

Howdy, I’m your host, Houston Mitchell. Let’s get right to the news.

David Wharton on Sam Cunningham: College football still clung stubbornly to segregation in the early 1970s. There were still teams at major universities, in some parts of the country, that refused to put Black players on the field.

The powerhouse Alabama Crimson Tide were chief among the holdouts, which made their game against USC in the fall of 1970 such a big deal. Not only did the Trojans bring an integrated roster to Birmingham, but they also had a Black fullback named Sam “Bam” Cunningham.

Built thick and strong, earning his nickname by crashing into the line of scrimmage time and again, he led the Trojans to victory with 135 rushing yards and two touchdowns, showing the segregationists what they were missing. Though that Saturday afternoon often has been embellished upon retelling, there is little doubt it played a crucial role in integrating the sport.

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“I’m just proud to be a part of it,” Cunningham told the Times in 2016, “because it was such a special game.”

The Santa Barbara native died Tuesday in Inglewood at 71, USC officials announced. No cause of death of death was given.

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NFL

Sam Farmer on the NFL: Beyond fans returning to stadiums and authentic cheers instead of simulated noise, the NFL is kicking off the 2021 season with something it didn’t have last fall — a pandemic playbook that’s proven.

As other leagues staged abbreviated seasons and quarantined their players in hopes of shielding them from COVID-19, the NFL navigated its way through an entire schedule, postponing when necessary, continually adjusting safety protocols, but never canceling a game.

“The NFL proved things that I don’t think people thought we could do,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said.

In multiple interviews with the Los Angeles Times, Goodell and more than two dozen people — league executives, front-office personnel, players and medical professionals — close to the situation reconstructed the fragile process of staging a season amid a pandemic, and the commissioner’s focus to safely complete all 256 regular-season games, the playoffs and Super Bowl without relying on an NBA-style bubble.

The league relied on rigorous testing, tough enforcement of its own protocols and transparency with the players, staff and public. But candor had its limits. Unbeknownst to almost everyone, including many team owners, Goodell and a small group of schedulers secretly had a plan for a 10-game season that would start in November and delay the Super Bowl.

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NFC predictions: How each team will finish this season

AFC predictions: How each team will finish this season

UCLA FOOTBALL

Ben Bolch on the Bruins: UCLA football is back … in the national rankings.

Season-opening victories over Hawaii and Louisiana State vaulted the Bruins (2-0) to No. 16 in the Associated Press and coaches polls released Tuesday, landing two spots behind USC ranked No. 14 in both polls.

UCLA was ranked No. 25 in September 2017 AP poll after starting that season with victories over Texas A&M and Hawaii before losing to Memphis and falling out of the poll.

It’s the first time UCLA has been ranked under coach Chip Kelly, who was hired before the 2018 season, and the first time one of Kelly’s teams has been ranked since Oregon finished the 2012 season No. 2 after beating Kansas State in the Fiesta Bowl. Kelly spent the next four seasons in the NFL.

TENNIS

Helene Elliott on the U.S. Open: Leylah Fernandez of Canada extended her string of impressive efforts and upsets at the U.S. Open, reaching the semifinals despite not being seeded in the tournament.

Again showing poise and purpose, the 19-year-old left-hander carved out a 6-3, 3-6, 7-6 (5) quarterfinal victory over No. 5 seed Elina Svitolina of Ukraine on Tuesday at Arthur Ashe Stadium. In previous rounds, she upset defending U.S. Open champion Naomi Osaka and 2016 champion Angelique Kerber.

“I honestly have no idea what I’m feeling right now,” she said during an on-court interview. She then thanked the enthusiastic crowd, saying: “Throughout the whole match, I was so nervous. Thanks to you, I was able to push through today.”

At 21, Canada’s Felix Auger-Aliassime is a leading member of the generation that’s trying to succeed Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray and other longtime stars as the faces of pro tennis. Auger-Aliassime cleared a significant hurdle in that quest Tuesday when he advanced to the U.S. Open semifinals through the injury-driven retirement of Carlos Alcaraz during their quarterfinal match at Arthur Ashe Stadium.

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At U.S. Open, Leylah Fernandez follows father’s advice and fights for her dream

DODGERS

Jorge Castillo on the Dodgers: The scarce crowd stood for the man they came to see Tuesday, the 41-year-old future first-ballot Hall of Famer who last starred here a decade ago before leaving them behind, miffed and wounded, for California.

St. Louis Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina stepped in front of home plate to give the fans at Busch Stadium for the Dodgers’ eventual 7-2 win time to show their love to Albert Pujols. They showered the first baseman with a 35-second standing ovation. Pujols doffed his batting helmet to the crowd and tapped Molina’s shin guard with his bat. The close friends and former teammates, foes for four days this week, shared a half hug.

Then Pujols provided a familiar sight: a line drive over the left-field wall, in front of Big Mac Land, for the game’s first run. It was Pujols’ 679th home run, 207th in St. Louis, 113th at Busch Stadium’s latest iteration, and 12th as a Dodger.

“I love these fans, they love me,” said Pujols, who finished 1 for 4. “There’s a lot of great history here so it’s always a special moment any time that I step in this stadium.”

The 386-foot blast off left-hander J.A. Happ sparked the Dodgers’ best offensive showing in three weeks en route to their second straight win over a Cardinals club gasping for air in the National League wild-card race.

“Storybook,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “It’s one of those things that you hope could happen, but the likelihood is very improbable.”

ANGELS

For live updates from the Angels’ two-game series against the San Diego Padres, click here.

CLIPPERS

Dan Woike on the Clippers: The Clippers have agreed to a nonguaranteed deal with center Harry Giles III for training camp, a person with knowledge of the situation but not authorized to speak publicly told The Times.

Giles, a former first-round pick, has battled injuries since being regarded as one of the top high school prospects in the nation. He landed at Duke, where he played with Clippers guard Luke Kennard, before being a first-round pick in Sacramento.

THIS DATE IN SPORTS

1946 — Jack Kramer wins his first U.S. men’s singles titles with a 9-7, 6-3, 6-0 win over Tom Brown.

1957 — Althea Gibson becomes the first black to win the U.S. Open, beating Louise Brough, 6-3, 6-2. Australia’s Malcolm Anderson defeats countryman Ashley Cooper in three sets to become the first unseeded player to win the U.S. Open.

1968 — Virginia Wade wins the first official U.S. Open (formerly known as U.S National Championships). Wade upsets Billie Jean King, 6-4, 6-2 and Arthur Ashe beats Tom Okker, 14-12, 5-7, 6-3, 3-6, 6-3 for the men’s title.

1969 — Australia Rod Laver wins the U.S. Open and the grand slam of tennis for the second time in his career with a four-set victory over Tony Roche. Laver wins 7-9, 6-1, 6-3, 6-2.

1973 — Australia’s Margaret Court Smith wins the U.S. Open for the fifth time with a 7-6, 5-7, 6-2 victory over Evonne Goolagong.

1974 — Billie Jean King wins her fourth U.S. Open with a 3-6, 6-3, 7-5 triumph over Evonne Goolagong.

1985 — Ivan Lendl wins his first U.S. Open title defeating John McEnroe 7-6, 6-3, 6-4.

1990 — Gabriela Sabatini prevents Steffi Graf from winning her third consecutive Grand Slam title with a 6-2, 7-6 (7-4) victory in the U.S. Open.

1991 — Stefan Edberg wins his first U.S. Open men’s singles title with a 6-2, 6-4, 6-0 win over Jim Courier.

1996 — Pete Sampras and Steffi Graf win the men’s and women’s singles titles, respectively, in the last U.S. Open championship matches played in Louis Armstrong Stadium.

1998 — Mark McGwire breaks Roger Maris’ 37-year-old home run record, lining historic No. 62 just over the wall in left field with two outs in the fourth inning. McGwire’s shot off the Chicago Cubs’ Steve Trachsel sets off a wild celebration in Busch Stadium.

2001 — Venus Williams wins her second consecutive U.S. Open title by beating her sister, Serena, 6-2, 6-4 in the first prime-time women’s Grand Slam final. The match is the 10th between sisters in a Grand Slam match during the Open era, with the older sister winning every time.

2002 — Pete Sampras beats Andre Agassi 6-3, 6-4, 5-7, 6-4 to win his 14th Grand Slam title and the U.S. Open for the fifth time. At 31, Sampras is the Open’s oldest champion since 1970.

2008 — Roger Federer salvages the 2008 season by easily beating Andy Murray 6-2, 7-5, 6-2 to win his fifth consecutive U.S. Open championship and 13th major title overall.

2013 — Riquna Williams sets a WNBA record with 51 points to help the Tulsa Shock rout the San Antonio Silver Stars 98-65. The second-year guard surpasses the previous record of 47 points set by Phoenix’s Diana Taurasi and matched by Seattle’s Lauren Jackson.

2013 — Top-seeded Serena Williams wins her fifth U.S. Open championship and 17th Grand Slam title overall by beating No. 2 Victoria Azarenka 7-5, 6-7 (6), 6-1 in a windy final.

2017 — David Benavidez becomes boxing’s youngest world champion and the youngest ever in the super middleweight division with a split decision victory over Ronald Gavril at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas. At 20 years, 9 months old, Benavidez (19-0, 17 KOs) won the vacant WBC super middleweight title over the 31-year-old Gavril (18-2, 14 KOs).

And finally

Althea Gibson’s speech after winning the 1957 U.S. Open. Watch and listen here.

Until next time...

That concludes today’s newsletter. If you have any feedback, ideas for improvement or things you’d like to see, email me at houston.mitchell@latimes.com, and follow me on Twitter at @latimeshouston. To get this newsletter in your inbox, click here.


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