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O/NSO: The USC Mount Rushmore series – The Fullbacks

The Obvious: Through the evolution of USC football, an almost forgotten and nearly extinct position is the once commanding presence of the fullback. Perhaps you’ve heard of a fullback? Trojans fullbacks once represented brute force as part of the classic USC running game. Until the recent decade, those celebrated Trojans tailbacks were once convoyed through holes and around ends of the line of scrimmage by players that gave their body and soul to clear the way.

The Not So Obvious: When legendary USC coach John McKay turned his I-formation into an art form and changed college football in the 60s, the fullback was the guy who did the dirty work, a lead-blocking battering ram. However, despite the stereotype, a number of these physical studs could also run the football with authority when given the opportunity.

Consider yourself a Trojans historian if you remember the fullback names of Ben Wilson, Mike “Bambi” Hull, Danny Scott, David Farmer, Deon Strother, Scott Lockwood, Terry Barnum, and Stanley Havili. All these aforementioned players ranged from outstanding to great fullbacks down through the decades of the modern era of USC football – but despite their dedication to the position, the aforementioned names did not make the O/NSO’s four-man Mount Rushmore of fullbacks.

And, no, the O/NSO didn’t forget late All-America tailback Ricky Bell, whose Trojans backfield career began as a fullback but later converted by head coach John McKay into one of USC’s all-time tailbacks. And, of course, there was Heisman Trophy winning tailback Marcus Allen who once played fullback as a lead blocker for Heisman Trophy winning tailback Charles White. John McKay’s successor, John Robinson, eventually converted Allen to tailback and another tailback legend was born.

Folks tend to forget that some of the Trojans greatest tailbacks once began their careers as a fullback like former All-America Ricky Bell (photo above).

As always, feel free to dissent from our selections and tell the O/NSO your own selections on the Garry P. WeAreSC message board. A reminder, our selections are not ranked in order of greatness but as a group and not by what they accomplished after their playing days at USC.

The O/NSO now proudly presents our fullbacks for the O/NSO’s USC Football Mount Rushmore.

The Obvious: Samuel Lewis Cunningham Jr. (1970-72) is considered the greatest fullback in USC history, a physical specimen (6-3, 225) who combined both crushing blocking and running excellence.    

The general consensus is that the greatest fullback in USC history is Sam “Bam” Cunningham (photo above).

The Not So Obvious: Sam Cunningham was so violent whether blocking or running the ball that the nickname “Bam” was attached to his name. Sam “Bam” Cunningham, a 1972 All-American, was a key member of Troy’s 1972 national championship team. In the 1973 Rose Bowl Game against Ohio State that clinched head coach John McKay’s third national championship, Sam “Bam” scored four touchdowns and all four scores came with an airborne leap into the end zone. Bam was named 1973 Rose Bowl Player of the Game.

In 1970, he was part of USC’s “all-black” backfield (the first one of its kind in Division 1 (NCAA) history), that also included quarterback Jimmy Jones and tailback Clarence Davis.  Sam had a spectacular playing debut performance, rushing for 135 yards and two touchdowns against Alabama, as the Men of Troy crushed The Tide 42-21 in Birmingham on September 12, 1970.

Sam’s performance against Alabama was reportedly a factor in convincing the Crimson Tide and its fans to let Coach Bear Bryant integrate his football team. Jerry Claiborne, a former Bryant assistant, said, “Sam Cunningham did more to integrate Alabama in 60 minutes than Martin Luther King did in 20 years.”

After his playing days as a Trojan, Sam was drafted in the first round (No. 11 overall) by the New England Patriots, where he would eventually make the 1978 Pro Bowl and later be inducted into the New England Patriots Hall of Fame (2010). “Bam” was also inducted into the USC Athletic Hall of Fame in 2001.

For his cardinal and gold career heroics, Sam was inducted into the Rose Bowl Hall of Fame in 1992 and into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2010.  

Below is a Sam “Bam” Cunningham video that recounts No. 39’s legendary game at Alabama that changed the course of football racial integration in the South:

The Obvious: Mosiula “Mosi” Faasuka Tatupu (1974-77) was perhaps as physical a fullback as the USC football program has ever produced.

The Not So Obvious: There probably has never been a more bruising and brutal fullback in Trojans lore than the late Mosi Tatupu (1974-77), the Hawaiian (Honolulu Punahou School) bone crusher who set prep rushing records for the state of Hawaii. Mosi (6-0, 230) was expertly used during his junior and senior collegiate years under Trojans’ Hall of Fame coach John Robinson, who once said, “Trying to tackle Mosi is like trying to tackle a Coke machine.”

Mosi Tatupu (photo above) was considered the ultimate blocking fullback but was also an outstanding runner when given the opportunity.

Because of the USC style of tailback running attack, Mosi’s duty was primarily as a blocking fullback during the McKay/Robinson era. Mosi’s rushing statistics were limited but impressive, nonetheless. It was his violent blocking, however, that left fans and opponents with jaws dropped. 

A native of American Samoa, Mosi rushed for 1,277 yards on 223 carries (5.4 avg.) in his Trojans career and was USC’s Offensive Player of the Year and Most Inspirational Player in 1977. The Trojans compiled a 37-10-1 in his USC career and won four bowl games, including two Rose Bowls.

Following his career as a Trojan, Mosi was drafted into the NFL in 1978 by the New England Patriots (8th round, 215th overall), where he was beloved by the New Englanders for his dynamic play on special teams. In 1986, Tatupu was named first-team All-Pro for special teams and was named to the Pro Bowl. He was also named after his career to the New England Patriots 50th Anniversary Team.

Mosi’s son was former USC All-America linebacker Lofa Tatupu, who starred for Pete Carroll’s 2004 national champions.

Sadly, Mosi Tatupu passed at the age of 54 in 2010.   

Below is a Polynesian Hall of Fame video of Mosi Tatupu:

The Obvious: Lynn Dwight Cain (1978-79) was a terrific all-around fullback, who was equally adept at blocking, running, and catching a football.  

After his playing days at Troy, fullback Lynn Cain (photo above) was drafted in the NFL by the Atlanta Falcons.

The Not So Obvious: Having had success with Mosi Tatupu, Trojans head coach John Robinson found another two-way fullback/tailback in Lynn Cain. Lynn was originally an All-American JC tailback out of East Los Angeles College, but Robinson turned the former L.A. Roosevelt High prep star into a fullback.

Cain gained notoriety as both a running and blocking fullback threat, which meant that opposing defenses couldn’t exclusively key on tailback Charles White. Lynn was instrumental in helping the Trojans to the 1978 national championship.

Lynn complete his USC career with 1358 yards rushing on 260 carries (5.2 avg.) and 11 touchdowns on the ground. He also accumulated 235 yards through the air on 19 receptions for a 12.4 average.

After his USC playing days were completed, Lynn was taken in the 1979 NFL draft (Round 4/100 selection overall) by the Atlanta Falcons and then completed his NFL career with the Los Angeles Rams (1985).

After his NFL days, Lynn transitioned into coaching and returned to his community college alma mater, East Los Angeles College, as the head head leading the Huskies to the conference championship in 2011. The last time ELAC had won a championship was when Cain was the MVP player on the same field at Weingart Stadium some 37 years earlier.

Below are Lynn Cain highlights from the 1978 Notre Dame at USC game. A note: To see Lynn Cain, you may have to slide the time counter at the bottom to 3:30. This will allow you to see the pregame and Cain’s first carry of the game:

The Obvious: Leroy Holt (1986-89) is arguably the Trojans best running fullback of all time, which tells you part of why he’s on the O/NSO Mount Rushmore of fullbacks.

Statistics wise, the greatest running fullback was Leroy Holt (photo above), but Holt was also a bruising blocker.

The Not So Obvious: To start with, all you need to know about Leroy’s sensational USC career is that he was the first USC fullback to start all four years. Not only did he break Sam “Bam” Cunningham’s all-time records for rushing yards and carries, but he did it without fumbling the football. How ironic that Leroy also wore the same jersey number (No. 39) as did Cunningham.

Another stud fullback out of Banning High in Wilmington, California. Leroy (6-1, 229) was known more for carrying the football than just blocking. Holt’s playing skills may not have been as important as his leadership skills, guiding the Trojans into the 1989 Rose Bowl game. Most players referred to Holt as the team’s spiritual leader. Making fullback Holt unique is that he still ranks No. 21 in USC career rushing (1,825 yards), and those numbers tell you about his greatness.

Leroy, an All-Pac-10 first-team selection, was drafted with the 137th pick (5th round/137 overall) in the 1990 NFL Draft by the Miami Dolphins. Unfortunately, his pro football career ended with a fractured vertebra in his neck during a preseason practice.

Below are USC and some Leroy Holt and game highlights from the 1988 USC/Notre Dame game:

The Obvious: And finally, it’s hard to believe that in today’s USC offensive, there isn’t much use for a fullback, but that doesn’t mean they couldn’t use one of our four Mount Rushmore fullbacks.

The Not So Obvious: Moving on to next Friday, the O/NSO will announce our four-man Mount Rushmore of offensive linemen and that should certainly be up for debate and conversation.

Past O/NSO USC Football Mount Rushmore selections:

The head coach: https://wearesc.com/o-nso-the-usc-football-mount-rushmore-series-edition-presenting-the-immortal-head-coaches/ 

The quarterbacks: https://wearesc.com/o-nso-the-usc-mount-rushmore-series-the-quarterbacks/  

The running backs: https://wearesc.com/o-nso-the-usc-mount-rushmore-series-the-tailbacks/  

The wide receivers: https://wearesc.com/o-nso-the-usc-mount-rushmore-series-the-wide-receviers/

Greg Katz

Now entering his 59th season of either writing, broadcasting, or just plain watching USC football, WeAreSC columnist Greg Katz began his affiliation with the website back in 2001, introducing his well-received O/NSO (The Obvious/The Not So Obvious) column and later adding his respected IMHO Sunday opinion and tidbits column. Greg, a former ESPN.com college football columnist covering USC, is also a member of the Football Writer's Association of America. He is also known in Southern California as a professional public address announcer, having called the the 1996 Rose Bowl Game between USC and Northwestern. Greg also holds a master's degree in athletic administration and was a former varsity high school coach of 27 years.

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