Monday, February 1, 2010

Catching Up with John Cannon, Part I

John Cannon, a native of Long Branch, New Jersey, joined the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the team's 4th overall draft pick in the 3rd round of the 1982 draft. The defensive end out of William & Mary recorded 22 sacks in 9 seasons with Tampa Bay. Cannon retired following the 1990 season, but has remained a fixture in the community. Currently a firefighter and paramedic for Tampa Fire Rescue in downtown Tampa, Cannon recently took some time to reflect on his memorable playing career. The following is the first of a three-part interview with John Cannon.

Q. What was your awareness of the Buccaneers coming out of college?

A. Very limited exposure. I grew up as a Giants fan, and going to school in Williamsburg, Virginia, I was there with a bunch of Redskins fans. We didn't get to see a lot of the Buccaneer games. The only exposure we did get was that they were struggling as a franchise and had goofy looking uniforms. Quite honestly, I didn't feel that way, but that was the consensus of the general public.

I watched them play on TV a handful of times, was delighted when they got their first win just like everybody else, and from a personal standpoint, never really dreamed that I'd someday be wearing the orange uniform and playing for the Buccaneers.

Q. What do you recall about your draft day experience?

A. I guess everyone that puts on a football uniform probably dreams of the playing in the NFL. My senior year at William and Mary, I had a knee injury. I was touted as an All-American candidate as a defensive lineman, and it was at that time the dream of playing in the NFL, because of all my hard work, was close to becoming a reality. Then because of the knee injury, it seemed like it was all shattered. This just made me work that much harder in my rehab.

At the time of the draft, I was going through finals at school. Back then, only the first three rounds or so were televised on ESPN. I lived in the fraternity house, and I had five finals that I had to take that week, so I was studying hard for that. I gave all the teams that were interested, including Tampa Bay, a few phone numbers where I could be reached. There were two phones in the house: a pay phone and a house phone. I was pretty much there by myself studying, and I had a group of friends in an apartment watching the draft. They told me they'd give me a shout if they heard or saw anything on ESPN. I was told that I could be drafted anywhere between the 3rd round or getting a free agent tryout. My hopes were obviously big, but I was trying to focus on studying.

Later in the afternoon, not too long after ESPN's coverage had ended, the pay phone at the house rings. I wasn't too quick to get up and answer it. I figured, if nobody answers and then the other phone rings, then maybe somebody really wants to get in touch with me. Sure enough, pay phone stops ringing and the other phone rang. I jumped up, grabbed the phone, answered it, and it was Jill Hobbs from the Buccaneers. She said, "We want to congratulate you on being drafted by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the third round." I was in shock, and thought it was a joke, honestly. (laughs) I thought it was my sister playing a joke on me, so I said "Who is this, really?" She said, "Here I'll give you somebody who is a little more convincing."

So she put coach Abe Gibron on the phone, God rest his soul. Abe was always gruff, and he was like, "Cannon! This is coach Gibron. We drafted you in the third round, we expect big things from you. You better be in shape. Rookie camp starts next week." (laughs)

That was basically the gist of it. I just kept saying, "Yes sir, yes sir, yes sir!" Then he gave the phone back to Jill and we went from there. But that phone call changed my life. That phone call introduced me to Tampa. I came down, having to rearrange my finals to come down for rookie camp, which was a long weekend back then. I came back to school, finished my finals, graduated, then drove back down about a month before training camp.

It was just incredible to be thought that highly of that I was going to be a professional athlete. Once I got the phone call I did some research on the team, and saw the names Lee Roy Selmon, Doug Williams, James Wilder, David Logan, Richard "Batman" Wood, all these guys that I was going to be competing with to play in the NFL. If that's not motivating, I don't know what is.

I can remember my very first practice. My dad, God rest his soul, was a tremendous fan, so he was very curious as to how it went. I said I worked hard, but one of my coaches said that I must be a twin, because one of me couldn't be so darned stupid. (laughs) Dad told me to keep trying and that the coach probably tells all the rookies that. Sure enough by my second year I learned that was just Abe's way of communicating.

Q. Your first season in 1982 featured a 57-day players' strike. How did that impact you as a rookie?

A. The strike really hampered us, especially since I had worked so hard to make the team. All I knew to do was hang out with some of the guys and work out every single day. We had organized team workouts at Jesuit High School. Fortunately for me, I wasn't one that would spend a lot of money. I'm sort of frugal. I even am to this day. It just allows me to spend more money on family and friends. That's what I tell people, anyway. (laughs)

I still had my old car from college. Financially, where it might have been more difficult on some older players who were relying on those game checks, I had my signing bonus -- little as it was -- to carry me through. So it wasn't a financial struggle, but an emotional one. I worked so hard to get here and I wondered if I was ever going to play.

The strike was trying, but you look back on it in history, and part of the reason that players today have some of the great benefits they have are because of players like myself and those before me who thought it was important to fight for those rights. I certainly believe players today appreciate that and understand the sacrifices we made for the betterment of NFL players in general.

Q. What do you make of the efforts by people like Mike Ditka to raise money for former players who do not enjoy the same financial or medical benefits available to today's football players?

A. I support his efforts. Maybe there's been some people who have neglected, for whatever reason, to take care of the retired players. The pension, compared to other leagues, really isn't suitable for a financially sound retirement. Ditka's efforts certainly have made the news and he's made some pretty good headway into that. There are active players who understand the importance of taking care of the older guys, so hopefully things will change for the better.

Q. After the strike ended, the Buccaneers rebounded from an 0-2 start by winning five of their next seven games.

A. Sure enough, after the strike we ended up at 5-4 and qualifying for the playoffs. We went to Dallas for that game and it didn't work out too well for us.

Being Lee Roy's backup, I didn't see a lot of playing time, but would get called in on third down situations. I think late in the first quarter, Lee Roy goes down with an ankle injury and is limping off the field. I remember this like it was yesterday. I was standing on the sideline next to Wayne Fontes, who was the defensive coordinator. I start getting ready to put my helmet on and my mouthpiece in, and Wayne grabs me. He kind of looked at me, then looked around to see if there's anyone else, and said, "Who's Selmon's backup?" I told him that I was Lee Roy's backup. He looked me in the eyes, and kind of sighed, and said "Get in there and don't screw anything up." (laughs)

So I go running in there, and I knew exactly where they were coming on the first play, and I believe I made the tackle. I was in there for three or four plays before they were able to tape Lee Roy up and send him back in there. I think I earned some respect from my coaching staff and teammates by filling in for Lee Roy the best that I could.

I also had half a sack that day on Danny White from coming in on third down situations. It was a nationally televised game, so I was a big celebrity when I went home after the holidays to see my family and friends. Unfortunately, that was the last playoff experience I had. (laughs)

Part two of a three-part interview will run in next week’s edition of La Gaceta.

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