Amid a racial reckoning, a 50-year-old USC-Alabama football game carries new meaning

How one USC-Alabama game changed the Crimson Tide, college football (6:08)

Fifty years ago, Sam Cunningham and the USC Trojans ran all over Alabama, helping push the Crimson Tide toward integrating their all-white football team. (6:08)

JIMMY JONES KNEW I was going to call. Someone like me always calls.

Every few years, a writer reaches out to Jones or his teammate Sam Cunningham or any member of the 1970 USC football team, wanting to ask about a football game played half a century ago in Birmingham, Alabama.

Jones has a deliberate way of speaking, and even now, at 70 years old, the former quarterback projects the calm of a playcaller in the huddle. "All right, I'll tell you some stories," he says.

He talks about the matchup in which his all-Black USC backfield (Jones, Cunningham and tailback Clarence Davis) beat up on Bear Bryant's all-white Alabama team on Sept. 12, 1970, and how, in the years since, the game has for many become a defining moment in the history of race in American football, the tipping point toward a truly integrated sport. Documentaries have been made and film scripts shopped. One of a catalog of books through the years calls it "The Game That Changed a Nation."

For Jones, the game takes on different meanings over time, and never more than this year. The country is going through a reckoning on race that touches everything -- the things right in front of us, like jobs and schools and what happens when we walk down the street, and the things in our past too, like contests between football teams that felt like clashes between cultures. I called Jones and Cunningham to hear some of the old stories, sure, but also to hear about what the game meant then and what it was starting to mean now.

Jones lives in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, near where he grew up, and has watched as acts of police brutality against Black men have spurred protests about racial injustice across the United States. "I think all you have to do is look at what's going on," he says, "and realize that even some of the gains that were made from what we did 50 years ago have been eroded."

In Inglewood, California, Cunningham, the fullback whose 135 yards and two touchdowns against Alabama made him a star, follows the plight of Colin Kaepernick and seethes at the tragic killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, and he wonders what exactly a game can mean.

"We had the civil rights movement with them shooting fire hoses and siccing dogs on people," he says. "Now it's different, but it's still the same, you know what I mean?"

In the fall of 1970, the USC football team, which finished 15th in the year-end AP poll, conquered fears and prejudices, went into a Deep South still marked by racism and discrimination, and put a hurting on a team coached by the legendary Bryant. What those players did mattered. But watching what has happened in Minneapolis, Louisville and Kenosha has made it impossible for the 50th anniversary to feel like a simple celebration.

"We took five steps forward, and now it's been four steps back," Jones says.

WHEN JONES, CUNNINGHAM and their teammates got on the plane in Los Angeles to fly to Alabama, they were understandably frightened by what might await them. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy had been assassinated a little over two years earlier. The state was run by a segregationist governor, George Wallace, who was headed toward an easy reelection. And instances of violence against Black people were all too common; in fact, just days after the game, Birmingham police fired on members of the Black Panthers.

Cunningham remembers telling his father where USC would play its season opener that year and having the elder Cunningham just stare at him for several minutes. Don't do anything stupid, he finally said.

Defensive end Tody Smith told his teammates he'd bought a gun and brought it with him in his luggage. "Other people had taken some knives along with them in their suitcases," Jones says. "Just in case."

The players talked to one another about being sure that they stayed together if they had a reason to be away from the team hotel. Players like Smith, who grew up in Texas and heard stories of police beatings and knew well the horrors of lynchings, warned that even the most benign situations could turn without warning.

"Killing Black men wasn't something that wasn't happening, you know?" Jones says. "We were young, but we weren't that young."

When they arrived in Alabama, Jones remembers looking around for signs of discrimination -- a segregated bathroom or water fountain -- but seeing none. The divide still existed just beneath the surface, though, and the Trojans felt it as they conducted their walk-through at Alabama's Legion Field.

The air was thick and heavy with humidity. A few thousand fans showed up, Cunningham recalls. The players stretched and ran. They threw passes to each other and loped up and down the sidelines. They bounced around, never unaware of the sea of white faces in the stands gawking. "It felt like we were animals in a zoo," Cunningham recalls.

Later at the team hotel, a few players stood in the lobby as a white fan approached linebacker Charlie Weaver. The fan asked to touch his dark skin. Weaver, stunned but not cowed, assented. "I think he wanted to see if it would rub off," Jones says.

The next day, as USC's team bus took a route through one of Birmingham's mostly Black neighborhoods, the larger importance of the trip became clear.

Black Alabamians, who weren't allowed to buy tickets to the game, came out on porches and congregated on street corners, waving at the USC bus and cheering as it motored by. Cunningham remembers looking out and seeing children shouting, ecstatic to see athletes who looked like they did. Jones abandoned his usual pregame ritual of rehearsing plays in his mind to stare out the window.

"I think it kind of set in," he says. "We're down here not just to win for the mighty Trojans. We're also down here to win this game for our people."

The Tide had gone through a down period at the end of the 1960s, and the talent gap between the teams was obvious from kickoff. On one play early in the game, Alabama senior quarterback Scott Hunter took the snap and prepared to pass but was swallowed up by Weaver and the USC defense before he could even complete his dropback. "That was about when I said to myself, 'OK, if this keeps up, it's going to be a very, very long night,'" Hunter says.

Cunningham scored twice, and the Trojans shredded Alabama's defense, outgaining the Crimson Tide by 450 yards. The score was 22-7 at the half, and Jones remembers thinking more during the break about how to extend the lead than whether Alabama might threaten a comeback. On this night, he told himself, a statement win would be exactly that. "We knew it was important not to let up, ever," Jones says. The final was 42-21.

Johnny Musso, an Alabama running back who scored two of the Tide's touchdowns, barely remembers any of his team's offensive possessions because Cunningham's performance was so dominant. "It was like junior high kids chasing after him," Musso says.

Adds Hunter: "Their Black guys were bigger, stronger, faster than us; their white guys were bigger, stronger, faster; and if they had any polka-dot guys, they were bigger, stronger and faster."

In the end, the white fans at Legion were quiet, the Alabama players were desperate to get to their locker room, and Bryant, the revered Tide coach, headed to the USC locker room to congratulate the Trojans on what they had done.

The USC players toasted one another and reveled in their accomplishment, for just a little bit, along with a smattering of Black fans who waited for them outside the stadium and cheered as their bus left. Then they flew home and prepared for another game the next weekend against Nebraska.

A FEW DAYS after the game, Hunter went to put gas in his car at a station in Tuscaloosa. The worker who usually did fill-ups and always loved to talk football put his rag down when he saw Hunter and sighed. "I was at that game," he said. "And, man, we've got to have some of them players."

"That's when I knew times had changed," Hunter says.

It is a story emblematic of the notion that there was a trickle-down effect from the game that led many hard-core anti-integrationists to reconsider their stance. But a 21-point loss in the first game of the season was not the catalyst for a groundswell of change.

Wilbur Jackson, a Black player from Ozark, Alabama, was on scholarship at Alabama for the USC game but couldn't play because freshmen weren't eligible -- and Bryant had been sending recruitment letters to Black players for years. He even sent one to Cunningham, who said he chuckled at the idea of moving to Alabama from California at the time.

In 1971, Alabama had just one other Black player on its team (John Mitchell, who helped the Tide win at USC in the return matchup of the home-and-home), and it wasn't until 1977 that Alabama had 15 Black football players on scholarship. Progress was, unsurprisingly, slow and murkily defined.

Still, the game resonates.

Jones thinks it is because of the name recognition of both programs and the novelty of a team from California, an outsider, coming into the Deep South. Cunningham thinks a lot of it has to do with Bear Bryant and his place in football lore.

Jones, Cunningham and their teammates have been talking about the game for 50 years. But this time -- on this anniversary -- they're more circumspect. When I ask Cunningham about how the game is remembered as having such an impact on Black athletes being recruited in the SEC, he says, "Well, it seems like it changed everything. ... But the only way they were allowed into that university [was] because they can help those programs win.

"Did it really change, or was it just convenience?"

His mind jumps to Kaepernick, a Black athlete who protested against systemic racism and might never play in the NFL again. "That just doesn't make any sense to me," Cunningham says.

Jones sees a disturbing arc of how discrimination presents itself in sports. In his time, it was unvarnished, with rules and precedents restricting access to programs and opportunities. Then, he says, it became more insidious, more under the surface. There were no rules against NFL teams using Black quarterbacks in the 1970s and '80s, but Jones -- who left USC as one of its top passers -- never got a job or even a serious look in the NFL.

Now he sees a return to more blatant racism, pundits and politicians pushing a "stick to sports" mantra or intentionally muddling the messaging when Black athletes protest during the national anthem. The line from the 1970 game through the years to Black Lives Matter stamps on jerseys and players kneeling is continuous, he believes.

"It's a direct line," he says, "and it will continue to run."

He sighs. "It's going to be an endless line," he says, sounding a little more tired than when he first picked up the phone.

But he does pick up. He keeps taking phone calls from people like me. He and Cunningham keep talking about the game, keep thinking about what it means, keep asking and answering questions as the years roll past.

In that way maybe the game in 1970 matters most of all.