I was a second grader at Jacksonville Elementary School in October 1972, so nobody talked to us 7-year-olds about the helmet-to-helmet hit that killed Jacksonville High’s Anthony “Speedy” Cannon on a Friday night at Wellborn High School. A decade later, as a Jacksonville High senior and sports editor of the weekly Jacksonville News, I didn’t get much traction for my piddling piece of anniversary journalism. Nobody wanted to talk to a teen sportwriter, and I didn’t know enough to try harder.
For years, back in the days when P.E. was a required class, I passed the memorial to Speedy in the gym and wondered what happened. Some said it was racism, against a school whose band played “Dixie.” Others said it was just a hard hit on a guy already hit too many times.
Now, 40 years later, Sports Illustrated’s Thomas Lake has told the story with “The Ghost of Speedy Cannon,” a terrific piece of journalism that does everything right online. In addition to the long story, we can read The Anniston Star’s stories, see Speedy’s stats, and look at photos from musty Ad Annos yearbooks.
And we can see the play that killed Speedy, where Wellborn’s No. 70 delivers the blow a few steps after Speedy was out of bounds.
It’s a masterful piece of reporting that raised multiple ethics questions for Lake, whose decisions are part of the story. Indeed, Lake:
1. Does not decide for us whether it’s murder or an accident, but he allows people on all sides of the question make their case. He provides his own conclusion, but does not try to force it on readers.
2. Did not name Wellborn’s No. 70, essentially saying that his life didn’t need to be burned by SI’s bright spotlight.
What strangers believed about Number 70 did not appear to be true. He showed no sign of being a racist. Nor did he seem consumed by guilt. He had played football for a while longer and then quit because he was tired of it and after a few false starts he had gotten a good job as a welder. He had a nice wife and a son and twin daughters and two grandchildren. He had cried over Cannon’s death and then moved on with his life. It was the only reasonable choice.
(The Star did not name the player, either, but noted that the play drew a 15-yard penalty.)
3. Did not name the Wellborn coach, now an 81-year-old man, saying that allegations that he told players to kill Speedy “him appear to be untrue.”
4. Spelled it “n—–” many times, even as he did not dodge the essence of the racism angle to the story.
As a Jacksonville High graduate born too late to understand what happened in 1972, I am grateful to Lake for telling what I didn’t know about my home.
As a journalism professor, I am grateful to Lake for doing such a terrific job.