Selective Memory in an Alabama High School Football Game in 1972

Right after class today I was making my daily rounds to my favourite websites. On si.com, I stumbled upon an article pertinent to our class discussion today entitled The Ghost of Speedy Cannon about a star African-American high school football player from Jacksonville High School in Alabama in 1972. Anthony “Speedy” Cannon died from apparent brain haemorrhaging after suffering a terrible hit during a high school football game against Wellborn High School from a white opponent, a team who only had one black player. Thomas Lake of Sports Illustrated was invited to investigate this hit over 40 years later to find out whether there was any racist motivation for this cruel hit.

The reason for suspicion stemmed from the fact that this hit was considered a “late hit” meaning that when the hit happened, play had already been whistled dead; therefore, any hitting after that point is a penalized offence within the rules of football.  Some people who witnessed the event were also convinced that Wellborn High was targeting Cannon and with the intent to hurt him enough to knock him out of the game.

This article is interesting because the author interviewed several people who witnessed the hit could not come to a consensus as to the offending team and player’s motivations.  Some were convinced that the coach had told the players to knock him out, or at worst, kill him.  Others take a more apologetic approach and say that the offending player–nicknamed “Number 70” to protect his identity–was simply caught up in the fervour of the game, didn’t hear the whistle, and hit Speedy by accident with no other intention than just to play the game hard.  Some of Jacksonville’s players remember a racially-charged letter being sent to them from Wellborn, others have no recollection of a letter being created at all.

I don’t know what really happened, I don’t know who (if anyone) is responsible for Speedy’s death, but this article is a great example of selective memory and what people (unconsciously or not) choose to remember from certain historic events. Some people want to remember this as an innocent play in order to free their conscience from any wrongdoing, others want to remember every nasty, racist detail of the game to convict Wellborn High of this horrible event.  Like most events in history, the truth likely lies somewhere in the middle of these extreme recollections.

If you don’t feel like reading the whole article, Lake’s concluding remarks are below:

And that was where my journey led: to a black man with inside knowledge of the Wellborn team who said the hit on Cannon was nothing more than a play in a football game. Having thought about it for the past 12 months, I’ll tell you what I believe.

I believe there were many people in the stands that night who hoped Cannon would be hurt so badly that he would have to leave the game. Certain fans feel this same hope at every football game. But this is the difference: I believe some of the people in the stands at Wellborn that night genuinely wanted Speedy Cannon dead.

I believe a few were glad when they learned of his death. This is evil, but it does not amount to murder.

I believe the Wellborn coaches merely wanted their players to tackle Speedy Cannon, and tackle him hard, because they needed a very common thing that night: They needed to stop him in order to win.

I believe Number 70 was motivated not by racism but by the thirst for violence that remains an inseparable part of football.

When I told Andy Lamb about my interview with Charles Kirkland, about Kirkland’s friendship with Number 70 and his fondness for the Wellborn coach, this is what Andy Lamb said:

“I still believe, and I guess I always will believe, that this was racially motivated.”

To a point, I agree with him.

I believe Cannon was the target of excessive on-field violence throughout his football career, both because of his skill and because of his race, and that the effects of this violence accumulated on his body until they ended his life.

All through his junior season, he took one crushing hit after another. One defender would stand him up and then two or three others would unload. Just go down, his uncle kept telling him. Just go down. But Cannon kept those legs churning.

He never seemed afraid until the week of the Wellborn game. At the countywide trade school, where he spent part of the school day learning masonry, he had a friend who went to Wellborn. Every day that week it was the same. He kept asking his friend, in gravely serious tones, What are they saying about me? What are they saying about me?

The day before the game, his cousin saw something he’d never seen before. Cannon was polishing his football shoes.

Why are you polishing your shoes, the cousin asked.

And Speedy Cannon said,

It might be the last time I wear ’em.

While I don’t necessarily disagree with Lake’s conclusion, I’d like to know how he arrived at his conclusion.  I’d like to know what he witnessed during his interviews (e.g. body language, sighs, tone, speed of speech, etc.) to make him think the way he did.  Moreover, he said that he had twelve months to think about this, I’d like to know about his thought process was and learn about some other answers he considered before settling with the one he published.  He probably didn’t have the space to include this thinking in his article since it was quite lengthy to begin with, but I’d like to know about the challenges he faced in terms of the people he met and any challenges he had in reading them, or if he could take what they said at face value.

Source: Lake, Thomas. “The Ghost of Speedy Cannon: How Race and Recollection still Frame an Alabama Fatality Forty Years Later,” Sports Illustrated (Oct 8, 2013). http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/longform/speedy/?sct=hp_t1t_a2&eref=sihp (Accessed Oct. 8, 2013)

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