Cunningham goes into Patriots HOF

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Sam Cunningham saved me from excruciating pain and certain ridicule in front of hundreds of people.

Behind an end zone of the New England Patriots practice fields, we were reminiscing about his playing days when some people screamed "Heads up!"

My instinct was to look at the far field, where the Patriots and New Orleans Saints were running 11-on-11 drills. Saints kicker Garrett Hartley had been working out on the closest field but would need to go wiiiiiiiiiide left to send a ball our way.

Hartley did, and thankfully Cunningham still has those soft hands or else I'd have reprised Hans Moleman in "Man Getting Hit by Football."

With the ball flying right toward a most delicate region and me looking into the sun, Cunningham reached over and snared it like it was a Steve Grogan backfield toss.

"I hadn't caught a football in I don't know how long," Cunningham laughed.

At that moment, I enshrined Cunningham into the Tim Graham Hall of Fame, which I'm sure falls just short of measuring up to the honor the Patriots will bestow on him Thursday afternoon.

The hard-charging fullback known as "Bam" will be inducted into the Hall at Patriot Place.

"We came, we put in our work as hard as we could and much as we could and for the fans and the people to appreciate it," Cunningham said. "At the end of the day, that's all you want. You make your money, you spend your money and you do whatever you do. The appreciation factor is something that never goes away."

He is said to have helped integrate college football in the South with a dominant performance for USC against Alabama in 1970 and spent all 10 of his NFL seasons with the Patriots. He's still the franchise leader with 1,385 rushing attempts and 5,453 yards. His 43 rushing touchdowns rank second.

Cunningham had one of the greatest seasons at any position in Patriots history in 1977, when the Patriots set an NFL record with 3,165 rushing yards. The record hasn't been legitimately approached despite the addition of two more regular-season games.

That year, Cunningham ran for a team-high 1,015 yards and four touchdowns and caught 42 passes for 370 yards and a touchdown. He went to the Pro Bowl the next season, running for 768 yards and eight touchdowns.

"He played at a time where a lot of people don't really probably right now appreciate what fullbacks were in the '70s and early '80s," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. They were "guys that not only blocked, but ran the ball, caught it and really never came off the field ... not just on first down or third down or those kind of specialty players.

"He was a big ball carrier, a hard guy to tackle, a very good runner, a good blocker, caught the ball well, very good in short-yardage and goal line."

But Cunningham's teams reached the postseason only three times, the last coming in 1982, when he played in only six games.

"We were off the radar a little bit, but I guarantee you the teams we played didn't really want to play us," Cunningham said. "People looked at us as an also-ran team, but we had players from programs that had won and didn't like to lose and a coach that didn't like to lose and held us accountable.

"History looks back differently than those teams were at that time. The teams we played understood the talent we had and what we could do if they took us lightly."