In 1972, Anthony Odell “Speedy” Cannon, a junior at Jacksonville High School, died while playing football.
Last week, in a shady, sun-dappled cemetery beside now-closed New Hope Missionary Baptist Church, several of Speedy’s school friends, neighbors and family members met to memorialize the young athlete. His head injury and subsequent death at that game left the student body and the community in grief that has lasted, for some, a lifetime.
Signs on Church Street led guests to the “50th Commemorative Anniversary — Still Here: Legacy and a Legend.”
By 2 p.m. Friday, the sun had raised the morning’s temperatures into the mid 80s, and the speaker’s stand was beyond the reach of shade. Yet the speakers bore that discomfort without notice as they talked about Speedy or read proclamations from local dignitaries. Those who knew him best shed gentle tears and spoke from the heart about a young man whose memory remains.
The sting of integration
Years before his death, Speedy and Pam Baker-King, who now lives in Cedartown, Ga., were two of the first students to integrate Kitty Stone Elementary School even before it was mandated. Baker-King was one of the organizers of the memorial event.
Integration at that time did not prompt school officials to bring in counselors for the students, speakers at the Friday event said. Black students and their families at the vanguard of integration throughout the state took in their circumstances and confronted any racism they faced the best they could.
Some racism came from whites, both students and adults, according to the speakers. Some came from Blacks, especially the children, who spoke hateful words against their friends who had dared to step out of their long-cultivated social structure in the all-Black Eastwood School. In 1968, the Eastwood School had closed, and the students had been sent to Jacksonville City Schools.
In the early 1970s, almost everything was touched by racism, and Speedy’s death may have been no exception. The circumstances that left him lying on the football field — when he was one moment blazing along the turf, and the next moment tackled and knocked out of bounds, and then tackled again, helmet to helmet — raised many unanswered questions.
A film recorded the moment. Speedy’s teammates who had been playing against the team from Walter Wellborn High School had seen him shakily stand before being taken away by an ambulance. Jacksonville had been winning, according to published accounts, but Speedy’s injury distracted the Golden Eagles and possibly changed the trajectory of the game.
‘We all took it hard’
“Speedy was on his way to a record year with 700 yards rushing during only the first four games,” said Dr. George “Butch” Douthitt Jr., the main speaker Friday. His father later became a city councilman and then mayor of the town, and his white family’s prominence in town is still remembered. His mother, known as Mama Dee, taught at JHS and was spoken of Friday as one who loved all the students. It was she who awakened Douthitt from his sleep and told him of the death.
“We all took it hard,” he said, his voice pausing to resume his composure as he told the story.
Douthitt was one of the dozen speakers Friday. He said that Speedy and his death had affected him so much it had shaped his career. Douthitt became an orthopedic surgeon, and he moved to Gadsden to practice his profession, which he said, “is as close to Jacksonville as I can get.” He’s a back and shoulder surgeon and has stood for the past 30 years on the sidelines at hundreds of football fields to assist injured players. Throughout the time, he has spoken to many gatherings of coaches about the dangers of head injuries. To parents of players who want their son to return to the field after an injury, he said he has shared Speedy’s story.
Speedy’s death also shaped the life of Baker-King. She said she had no thoughts of going to college after graduation. Her role at that fateful game had been as a cheerleader, the first, she said later, to integrate JHS’s cheer team and the first black cheerleader in all of Calhoun County.
After Speedy’s death, fans set up a scholarship to Jacksonville State University, and Baker-King was the first recipient. The award started her on a path to earning a college degree in special education, patterned after Mama Dee’s career choices. She chose to become a cheer coach, but at no time during the countless Friday night games when she worked, could she bring herself to watch the players on the field.
“I kept my eyes on my cheerleaders,” she said. “I always had Speedy on my mind.”
She said that today, she still cannot watch a football game.
Baker-King said she locked in herself the pain she endured during the period of integration and the time after losing Speedy. She began to face it when, almost 30 years afterward, she started the “Youth Working Together for a Speedy Awareness” nonprofit organization, a 20-year enrichment program for black students that emphasizes the importance of literacy. The pain continued and motivated her to organize a 40th commemoration event, and then something happened shortly afterward that she feels helped her understand her own feelings more fully.
Recounting the tale
A reporter from “Sports Illustrated” named Thomas Lake visited the area and interviewed all those he could find who were involved in that October 6, 1972, football game, including the man whose helmet had landed a blow on Speedy’s as he lay on the ground. The writer’s in-depth piece considered questions of whether the death was related to racism and the practice among some who opposed integration of using the game of football as a tool of violence. He asked those he interviewed the tough questions. (Search online to see the video of Speedy’s final play and read “The Ghost of Speedy Cannon.”)
Everyone who spoke Friday said Speedy had love for all others, and Baker-King agreed. At the beginning and end of the event, she distributed to everyone in the crowd a decorative grocery sack with the words “thank you!” written on them.
“Take these home,” she said, “and fill them up with love.”
Today, Speedy Cannon would be 66. It’s been 50 years since his body lay in a casket on the 50-yard line of a packed JSU stadium.
Another speaker Friday, Sibbie Hawthorne, expressed a sentiment similar to Bragg’s — “His last touchdown was to run to Jesus.”
Baker-King thanked state representatives Barbara Boyd and Koven Brown for their help in declaring Friday as Speedy Cannon Day, the committee who helped her organize the event, those who read and sent proclamations, and Jacksonville Mayor Johnny Smith and Jacksonville School Superintendent Mike Howard, who recognized Speedy at Friday night’s football game.