Dec 29, 2017; Arlington, TX, USA; General overall view of the 2017 Cotton Bowl logo on the back of the helmet of Southern California Trojans long snapper Jake Olson at AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Sam ‘Bam’ Cunningham, star fullback, dies at 71

Sam “Bam” Cunningham, a Southern California and New England Patriots fullback often cited as a positive force for the integration of football teams in the South, died Tuesday in Inglewood, Calif.

The cause of death was not yet known. He was 71.

Cunningham was an All-American for USC and was named the Rose Bowl MVP in January 1973, when he scored four touchdowns to lead the Trojans to a 42-17 win over Ohio State. That 1972-73 Trojans team went on to be named the unanimous national champion.

Earlier in his collegiate career, Cunningham, who was Black, helped USC pound Alabama 42-21 in the 1970 season opener by rushing for 135 yards and two touchdowns. The Crimson Tide varsity football team had not yet integrated, but did so the following season.

Longtime football coach Jerry Claiborne, an assistant on Bear Bryant’s staff at the time, went on to say, “Sam Cunningham did more for integration in 60 minutes than Martin Luther King did in 20 years.”

In a 2016 interview with the Los Angeles Times, Cunningham explained why he felt the truth was messier than that simple anecdote.

“That didn’t change how those white people thought of black people,” Cunningham said. “They were accepted because they could help their program win football games.”

Cunningham was the 11th overall pick in the 1973 NFL Draft by the Patriots and played nine seasons for New England. He scored 43 rushing touchdowns in the NFL and remains the Patriots’ all-time rushing leader with 5,453 yards.

Cunningham, the older brother of longtime NFL quarterback Randall Cunningham, was inducted into both the College Football Hall of Fame and the Patriots’ Hall of Fame in 2010.

“We are deeply saddened to learn of yet another loss to the Patriots family this week and our hearts ache for Sam Cunningham’s family and all who are mourning his passing today,” Patriots chairman and CEO Robert Kraft said. “Sam ‘Bam’ Cunningham was one of my favorite players throughout the ‘70s and my sons all loved him.

“After I bought the team in 1994, it was my honor to welcome him back to the team on multiple occasions, recognizing him as a 50th anniversary team member and again for his induction into the Patriots Hall of Fame.

“As much as I admired him as a player, my affection for him only grew after spending time with him and learning more about him as a person. He made a tremendous impact, both on and off the field, and was beloved by his teammates. As a Patriots Hall of Famer, Sam’s legacy and contributions will be preserved and celebrated forever, but today his loss is felt with heavy hearts.”

Others around the football world also paid their respects to Cunningham on Tuesday.

“Extremely saddened by the loss of a college football legend,” USC head coach Clay Helton tweeted. “As good a man as he was a player. Thank you Sam for being the example of what a Trojan should be. You will be missed but never forgotten.”

–Field Level Media

Jul 23, 2021; Pittsburgh, PA, United States;  A Pittsburgh Steelers helmet is seen during training camp at the Rooney UPMC Sports Performance Complex. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Former Steelers player, broadcaster Tunch Ilkin dies at 63

Tunch Ilkin, a former Pittsburgh Steelers player and broadcaster, died Saturday morning after a battle with ALS. He was 63.

“We are heartbroken by the passing of Tunch Ilkin. He was a man of faith who dedicated his entire life to being a devout Christian and family man,” read a statement issued by Steelers president Art Rooney II.

“He was loved by his family, teammates and friends. We were fortunate to have Tunch as a player and broadcaster for so many years. Our condolences to his entire family during this difficult time.”

A sixth-round pick of the Steelers in 1980, he played all but one of his 177 career games with Pittsburgh.

He started in 143 of those games, playing primarily at right tackle. He was a two-time Pro Bowl selection.

Ilkin joined the Steelers’ broadcast team in 1998, becoming the lead color analyst after Myron Cope retired following the 2004 season.

He revealed his ALS diagnosis last fall and finished out the season as the Steelers lost to the Cleveland Browns in a January playoff game. He announced his retirement in June.

In July, Ilkin was named to the Steelers’ Hall of Honor. The induction ceremony will be in November.

–Field Level Media

Feb 7, 2020; Tampa, FL, USA;  General view of the NFL Shield logo on the field before Super Bowl LV between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Kansas City Chiefs at Raymond James Stadium.  Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Ex-NFL player Keith McCants dies at 53

Keith McCants, a first-round pick in the 1990 NFL Draft, was found dead Thursday in St. Petersburg, Fla. He was 53.

The Pinellas County Sheriff’s office and the Pinellas County Medical Examiner’s office told local Bay News 9 that McCants’ death is under investigation.

Authorities responded to a call about an unresponsive male, where McCants was found. His cause of death has not been released.

“I talked to him all the time. Nothing was out of the ordinary,” Robert Blackmon, a city councilmember in St. Petersburg and a close friend of McCants, told AL.com.

McCants was an All-American linebacker at Alabama before the Tampa Bay Buccaneers selected him No. 4 overall in the 1990 draft and moved him to defensive end.

He played three seasons with the Buccaneers, followed by stints with the Houston Oilers and Arizona Cardinals over the next three seasons. In 88 career games (39 starts) he made 192 tackles and 13 1/2 sacks. He made one interception and six fumble recoveries and scored two defensive touchdowns.

He stumbled after his football career, however. In 2012, he was one of the athletes who endured financial problems featured in ESPN’s 30 for 30 film, “Broke.” He also talked of his use of painkillers and street drugs, his multiple arrests and struggles with homelessness.

“Keith always wanted his story out there,” Blackmon said. “He wanted others to benefit from the adversity he faced. I just loved him so much. I just don’t know what to say.”

–Field Level Media

Houston Oilers head coach Jeff Fisher, left, and General Manager Floyd Reese answer questions from the local media on a visit to Nashville Jan. 3, 1996. The pair are part of a statewide promotional tour of cities as the Oilers are trying to fulfill milestones agreed to in a $292.1 million package to move the team to Nashville for the 1998 season.

Former Titans GM Floyd Reese dies at 73

The Tennessee Titans on Saturday announced the passing of former general manager Floyd Reese, who is credited with helping to build the franchise’s only Super Bowl team.

Reese, who had been battling cancer, was 73.

A team release said Floyd was with the Oilers-Titans franchise for 21 years, serving as GM from 1994-2006. The franchise won 111 games during his time with the team.

Among his key moves, Reese drafted defensive end Jevon Kearse, running back Eddie George and quarterback Steve McNair, and hired Jeff Fisher as coach. All were integral in the Titans’ appearance in Super Bowl XXXIV, won by the St. Louis Rams 23-16.

“This is a sad day for our Titans family,” Titans controlling owner Amy Adams Strunk said in a statement. “I would like to send along my deepest condolences to Floyd’s wife, Sally, to his children, grandchildren and extended family. Floyd spent over two decades with our franchise in a variety of roles — position coach, assistant general manager and ultimately, general manager — and he excelled at all of them.

“As general manager, he built a team that saw sustained success and helped guide our franchise in the toughest of times and the highest moments. His keen eye for talent led him to some of the best players in our team’s history, which led the team to some of our greatest accomplishments. We look forward to remembering and honoring his legacy this season as he is formally inducted into our Ring of Honor.”

Most recently, he worked as a host at ESPN 102.3 The Game radio in Nashville.

–Field Level Media

Nov 30, 2019; Champaign, IL, USA; Illinois Fighting Illini defensive lineman Bobby Roundtree (97) is seen during the second half against the Northwestern Wildcats at Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

Former Illinois DE Bobby Roundtree dies at 23

Former Illinois defensive end Bobby Roundtree, who was paralyzed in a 2019 swimming accident, died unexpectedly Friday at age 23.

The school confirmed his passing a news release.

“All of us with Illinois Athletics are shocked and saddened by the sudden passing of Bobby Roundtree,” athletic director Josh Whitman said. “From his first day on campus, Bobby was a leader. His work ethic, competitive fire, and drive for excellence set him apart. Following his tragic accident, those same qualities allowed him to tackle his new challenges with the same vigor and determination that we had seen on the football field. In so doing, he continued to bring light and inspiration to the lives of those around him — and, in fact, to so many people who had never had the pleasure of meeting him.”

Roundtree suffered a severe spinal cord injury in the accident when he went home to Florida for a visit in May 2019. He had been rehabilitating in the Tampa area, where he died.

The school did not reveal a cause of death.

He frequently posted videos to Twitter highlighting the progress in his rehabilitation sessions, with the most recent coming Monday.

“He was fine. He was not sick. He just stopped breathing,” Brenda McCarthy, who knew Roundtree through her role as executive director of the nonprofit group We Believe In Me, told The News-Gazette in Champaign, Ill.

Roundtree played two seasons for the Illini, starting 20 games and earning All-Big Ten honorable mention honors in 2018.

“In the face of incredible adversity, he demonstrated he was, and always will remain, a true champion,” Whitman said. “Our thoughts and prayers are with his family. We will support them, and our players, coaches, and staff who knew him well, as we struggle to understand this terrible news and, ultimately, look to celebrate the remarkable young leader we have lost.”

–Field Level Media

Dec 19, 2020; Denver, Colorado, USA; A general view of the Denver Broncos helmet on sidelines against the Buffalo Bills during the second quarter at Empower Field at Mile High. Mandatory Credit: Troy Babbitt-USA TODAY Sports

Longtime offensive line coach Alex Gibbs dies at 80

Longtime NFL offensive line coach Alex Gibbs died Monday in Phoenix following complications from a stroke, the Denver Broncos announced. He was 80.

Gibbs coached in the NFL for three decades, including 14 seasons with Denver (1984-87, 1995-2003, 2013) that included back-to-back Super Bowl championships (XXXII, XXXIII).

“Coach Gibbs left a lasting legacy on this league with his innovative blocking schemes and outstanding teaching ability,” the Broncos said in a statement. “He helped the Broncos to Super Bowls in three different decades … while forging a reputation as one of the greatest assistant coaches in NFL history.

“Our hearts go out to Alex’s wife, Trina, and the entire Gibbs family as well as Alex’s many former players and fellow coaches.”

Gibbs also coached for the Los Angeles Raiders (1988-89), San Diego Chargers (1990-91), Indianapolis Colts (1992), Kansas City Chiefs (1993-94), Atlanta Falcons (2004-06), Houston Texans (2008-09) and Seattle Seahawks (2010).

Gibbs announced his retirement before the start of the 2010 regular season, but returned to the Broncos in 2013 as an offensive line consultant.

–Field Level Media

Vanderbilt quarterback Van Heflin (7) tries to escape the relentless pressure of Tulane defensive end Al Jones during the first half. The Commodores fall to the Green Waves 38-3 before a home crowd of an estimated 27,600 at Dudley Field Oct. 7, 1978.

78then10 009

Van Heflin, who broke QB color barrier at Vanderbilt, dies at 62

Van Heflin, who played quarterback for Vanderbilt beginning in the late 1970s, died from a heart attack. He was 62.

Heflin is remembered as the quarterback who broke the color barrier for the Commodores in 1978. He was the first Black player to become the consistent starter at quarterback.

“We mourn the loss of football trailblazer Van Heflin, Sr.,” Vanderbilt athletic director Candice Storey Lee posted Saturday on Twitter. “In the words of his dear son, ‘I love him with all my heart and he loved Vanderbilt with all of his.’”

Heflin, who was from Atlanta, played at Vanderbilt from 1978-81, making the transition to running back as a senior.

He played in 44 games in all for the Commodores. He completed 50 percent of his pass attempts — 144 of 288 — for 1,803 yards with eight touchdowns and 22 interceptions. He ran the ball 386 times for 1,076 yards and caught 45 passes for 358 yards and added a combined 14 touchdowns.

The Cleveland Browns selected him in the eighth round of the 1982 NFL Draft with the intention of moving him to tight end but released him before the start of the season.

–Field Level Media

Oct 20, 2018; Knoxville, TN, USA; The SEC logo on the field at Neyland Stadium before a game between the Tennessee Volunteers and Alabama Crimson Tide. Mandatory Credit: Bryan Lynn-USA TODAY Sports

Ex-Tennessee DB LaDarrell McNeil dies at 27

The Tennessee football program confirmed the death Friday of LaDarrell McNeil, a Volunteers defensive back from 2012-15. He was 27.

McNeil’s cause of death has not been released.

“We are mourning the loss of … LaDarrell McNeil,” Tennessee tweeted. “Our thoughts and prayers are with him, his family and his teammates. LaDarrell will be dearly missed.”

McNeil, who was from Texas, was a four-star recruit and the nation’s No. 7 safety in the Class of 2012, per the 247Sports composite.

With the Volunteers, he played in 47 games. He registered 219 tackles (2 1/2 for loss), five interceptions, 14 passes defensed, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. He was named to the SEC All-Freshman team in 2012.

He was not selected in the 2016 NFL Draft and did not sign a free-agent deal.

–Field Level Media

Jan 8, 2018; Atlanta, GA, USA; Detailed view of Alabama Crimson Tide player helmets on the ground after defeating the Georgia Bulldogs in the 2018 CFP national championship college football game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Ex-Alabama LB Harrell dies in Florida crash

William “Rowdy” Harrell, a former linebacker at Alabama, was killed in a car accident on his honeymoon. He was 30.

Harrell and his wife, Blakely, married Saturday. The North Carolina residents were traveling in the Florida Keys and were killed in a head-on collision Tuesday evening, AL.com reported.

Harrell walked on for the Crimson Tide and won three national championships with the team in his time there from 2009-12. After college, he went to work in motorsports.

“Rowdy was the epitome of what (walk-ons) stand for — he’s a hard worker, he had great character,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said on his weekly radio show. “…He had so much potential as a young person.”

He most recently worked as part of the pit crew for driver Alex Bowman’s No. 88 team with Hendrick Motorsports.

“Our entire team is absolutely devastated at the loss of Rowdy and Blakley,” crew chief Greg Ives said in a statement issued by the team. “They were such positive, giving and passionate people who could not have been a more perfect match. Rowdy had an energetic and infectious personality. He was the heart and soul of our team and always kept us motivated, no matter the circumstance.”

Harrell posted photos of the couple’s wedding on his Instagram account, he and Blakely smiling as their large wedding party surrounded them.

“On behalf of my new wife and myself….I would like to thank every single person who had a hand in our special day, came to be there for it, or simply gave us well wishes,” he wrote. “From the bottom of our hearts we love you all and feel how much you love us!! #whatablessing”

–Field Level Media

Jan 27, 2020; Miami Beach, Florida; USA; General overall view of Arizona Cardinals and Atlanta Falcons helmets at the NFL Experience at the Miami Beach Convention Center. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Former Cardinals coach Hanifan dies at 87

Former St. Louis Cardinals head coach and longtime NFL offensive line coach Jim Hanifan has died at age 87.

Hanifan passed away Tuesday evening at Missouri Baptist Hospital in St. Louis. His daughter, Kathy Hinder, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on Wednesday night that doctors still were determining the cause of death, but it was not related to COVID-19.

Hanifan coached the Cardinals for six seasons, compiling a 39-49-1 record from 1980-85 that included a playoff appearance during the strike-shortened 1982 season. He also went 0-4 as an interim head coach for the Atlanta Falcons in 1989.

A native of Compton, Calif., Hanifan was an All-American at Cal and played one season in the CFL with the Toronto Argonauts in 1955. He was inducted into Cal’s Athletics Hall of Fame in 2006.

After coaching in the college ranks at Utah, Cal and San Diego State from 1966-72, Hanifan became the offensive line coach of the Cardinals from 1973-78. He also coached the offensive lines for the San Diego Chargers (1979), Falcons (1987-89), Washington (1990-96) and St. Louis Rams (1997-2002).

–Field Level Media