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Patriots Notebook

Cunningham humbled by Hall honor

Sam Cunningham (left) is welcomed as the 15th member of the Patriots Hall of Fame by owner Robert Kraft before the game. Sam Cunningham (left) is welcomed as the 15th member of the Patriots Hall of Fame by owner Robert Kraft before the game. (Michael Dwyer/Associated Press)
By Shalise Manza Young
Globe Staff / August 13, 2010

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FOXBOROUGH — Sam “Bam’’ Cunningham, the Patriots’ all-time rushing leader, officially became the 15th member of the franchise’s Hall of Fame yesterday before New England’s preseason opener.

Cunningham called the honor humbling and exciting, even “otherworldly.’’

He recalled one of his first talks with then-Patriots coach Chuck Fairbanks, when he was a rookie in 1973: “He turned his head sideways, smoked his cigarette, and says, ‘You better not fail me.’ I said, ‘OK, I’ll do the best I can.’ ’’

Thirty-five former Patriots players, including six fellow Patriots Hall of Famers, and hundreds of fans were on hand for Cunningham’s induction, which took place at Patriot Place.

A member of one of New England’s greatest first-round draft classes, Cunningham, guard John Hannah, and receiver Darryl Stingley were chosen — the California native came to Massachusetts after a stellar career at Southern Cal, where he became the first player to score three touchdowns in the Rose Bowl.

He also is credited with integrating college football in Alabama, and perhaps all of the South, after his 135-yard, two-touchdown performance against the Crimson Tide in Birmingham in 1970.

Cunningham’s dominance in that game, a 42-21 Trojans victory, helped Alabama coach Bear Bryant persuade Tide followers it was time to integrate the football team.

“It felt like he had 800 yards that night . . . it was awful,’’ said Hannah, a former Crimson Tide standout. “I’ve always said, Martin Luther King Jr. legalized integration in Alabama, and Sam made Alabamians want integration.’’

Cunningham’s success continued in New England, as he rushed for 5,453 yards and scored 49 touchdowns over 107 games and nine seasons. Cunningham was the type of fullback not seen these days in the NFL — capable of running around and through defenders, while also providing ferocious blocks. Linebacker and teammate Steve Nelson said Cunningham’s hits “stung’’ where other backs’ hits were a mere thud.

At 6 feet 3 inches, 233 pounds, it wasn’t hard to figure out where that power came from. Quarterback Steve Grogan said that upon walking into the locker room his rookie year (1975) and seeing Cunningham in shorts, “He was one of the most impressive physical specimens I’ve ever seen. I don’t mean to sound crazy, but he had broad shoulders, a small waist, and big legs. I thought, ‘Now this guy must be something.’ And he was.’’

McKenzie’s wait ends
While 15 Patriots’ rookies saw their first NFL action in the Patriots’ 27-24 victory over New Orleans, so too did linebacker Tyrone McKenzie. A third-round pick last year, McKenzie tore his ACL during minicamp and missed the season.

“It was fun. Coming out there, walking through [the tunnel for] the opener, it was crazy; I had a great time,’’ he said. “A little rusty, but shoot, that was my first game since Senior Bowl in ’09.’’

McKenzie was the fourth inside linebacker on the field — Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes were the starters. When Mayo departed, Dane Fletcher played alongside Spikes. It was not until Spikes’s night was over that McKenzie played.

Once he was out there, however, it didn’t take long for McKenzie to get into things.

“Mental speed, once I started getting a couple of plays, it started clicking really quick on me and I started catching on to it,’’ said McKenzie, who was credited with two tackles and two assists.

Youth is served
The Patriots 2010 draft picks saw significant playing time. Eleven of 12 draftees played. Highlights for the group included first-round pick Devin McCourty swarming in to break up a pass from Drew Brees in the second quarter. McCourty also had a few chances on kick returns, averaging 37 yards on three returns. His longest was a 52-yard return to start the second half. It gave the Patriots the ball at the New Orleans 45 and led to an eight-play, 45-yard drive that ended with Laurence Maroney’s 1-yard touchdown run . . . Punter Zoltan Mesko averaged 43.8 yards on his five punts. He also was the holder on Stephen Gostkowski’s two field goals, including the winner with 53 seconds left . . . Tight ends Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski earned starts along with inside linebacker Spikes and McCourty. “We felt like Spikes needed to play a little bit more than some of the other guys in that group,’’ Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “He’s never played, so . . . I don’t know how many snaps he got, probably 25, 30, somewhere in there. We just felt like he needed more snaps than some of the guys he was out there with in that opening group.’’ Also, rookie Sergio Brown had a powerful hit on Montez Billings, jarring the ball loose as Eric Alexander came in for the interception allowing the Patriots to secure the game . . . Second-round pick Jermaine Cunningham, an outside linebacker from Florida, did not suit up and no reason was given.

Among the missing
There were 11 Patriots not in uniform: Cunningham, Wes Welker, Ty Warren, Leigh Bodden, Torry Holt, Nick Kaczur, Gary Guyton, Ron Brace, Matthew Slater, Bret Lockett, and Terrence Johnson. Logan Mankins (holdout) and Derrick Burgess (pondering retirement) were missing as well . . . Injured Red Sox first baseman Kevin Youkilis was at the game, chatting with owner Robert Kraft on the sideline before kickoff.

Shalise Manza Young can be reached at syoung@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @shalisemyoung.

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