Monday, February 8, 2010

Catching Up With John Cannon, Part II

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 second of a three-part interview with John Cannon.

Q. The 1983 season had to be a disheartening experience, as Tampa Bay went 2-14 in the first year of post-Doug Williams football. Was there more to the 1983 season than not having Williams or did the record really come down to his absence?

A. You lose your quarterback, it's not different than losing your CEO or president. Doug had been a part of the fiber of the Bucs for years. Looking back on it, we struggled with our next handful of quarterbacks that really didn't play to the level that Doug did. There was a lot of controversy in the media about why he wasn't re-signed.

As a player, I was hyper-focused just on doing my job, being part of the solution and not part of the problem, so I tried not to get involved in those politics. Now being out of the game for a while, I can say that certainly was a major turning point for some of those lean years in the 1980s.

Q. What was your take on the hiring of Leeman Bennett over Wayne Fontes as John McKay's replacement in 1985?

A. I tried not to get too emotionally involved in the decisions I had no control over. I can tell you this though: Leeman Bennett was a wonderful human being. Personally, I really liked Leeman Bennett. He reminded me a lot of my dad. I enjoyed playing for him, although ultimately when you're losing there's not a lot of enjoyment regardless of the coach. I think his demise was that he surrounded himself with his friends as coaches, and not necessarily the best available coaches.

Wayne Fontes was our defensive coordinator, and there was a big campaign -- not official, of course -- for him to get the job. He was well-liked by all the players. He was a very energetic, infectious person to be around. Would the history of the franchise had changed if Fontes had been selected as head coach? I'm not so sure that would have happened, but then again, who really knows? He eventually had success as head coach in Detroit, so he could have led us to more victories in Tampa. It's just hard to speculate.

Q. And what about Bennett's successor, Ray Perkins? Can you talk about what three-a-days during training camp were like starting in 1987?

A. Let me preface this by saying that Ray Perkins is a coach that I truly admired and respected. I also felt like he wasn't given enough time to turn the program around. That being said, I felt like my playing style, attitude and work ethic fit in perfectly with his coaching style.

During that first year, he tried to find players that were selfless, worked hard, were dedicated, had a lot of self-discipline and were willing to lay it all on the line. Those three-a-day practices were grueling, probably the most physically demanding experience that I have ever gone through. I believe his full intention with that training camp was for him to see who he could go to war with. We knew from his reputation that he was a no-nonsense coach, and that the three-a-days would be grueling.

It seemed like training camp was eight weeks long that summer. You didn't take it one day at a time, like a normal training camp, but one practice at a time. There was a lot of contact, a lot of running, a very physically demanding camp. Looking back on it, I'm proud -- as I'm sure are all the other players who made it through that camp -- that we did something not a lot of football players could do.

Coach Perkins remained a tough, hard-nosed coach throughout the regular season, as far as practices went. There was standing joke that because practices were so intense, that a game was actually like a day off, to a certain degree. We'd practice hard and maintain the hitting aspect late into the season. I don't know how fresh we were for the games, especially his first year. Sometimes on Sunday I didn't feel fresh because of the workload we had during the week. There might be a lot of evidence that our practice schedule contributed to lackluster performances during the second half of seasons.

Q. What do you recall about the 1987 players' strike?

A. First of all, I was the team's union rep at the time. I represented our team's players against management, the owners. It was an honor to be in that position. That being said, I was hesitant at first because Hugh Culverhouse was president of the management council for the owners. Whether coincidence or not, Buccaneer player reps were in that position one year and then traded or cut the following year. (laughs) When asked to do it, I was a little bit tentative to say the least. Still, I was honored and willing to let the cards fall where they may.

That being said, it was a very difficult time. The owners tried to break the union by bringing in scab players to cross the picket lines. We knew as players that it certainly would weaken our posturing for what we were trying to get accomplished - free agency most of all at that time. We also knew that there would be temptations by guys, who maybe went through training camp but were cut, to play for an NFL team. Quite honestly, I can't say that I blamed any one of them for crossing the picket line to play. Had I been in that situation -- and I tended to be a company man -- I can't say what I would have done.

I remember that we went out to picket the team hotel prior to the first game. We wanted to make it a point to have every one of those players look us directly in the eye, because they were making it hard for us to get accomplished what we've worked so hard for and deserved. My position being a leadership position, I took the posture and stance that we had to stay united and that were against the scab players. In my heart of hearts, however, I don't resent any one of those players who crossed the line.

Q. And you seemed to survive the curse by staying around for three more years.

A. Yeah, how about that? (laughs) I did. I can remember several times during that year in particular having face-to-face meetings with Hugh Culverhouse in his office. I remember going into his beautiful office overlooking the Howard Frankland Bridge. We'd have these conversations and I'd be very close-lipped, knowing of his position on the management council. I kept it very generic, but I thought for sure about that revolving door.

Q. So what about Hugh Culverhouse? As a player, did you see a different side of him, or is he everything the public has been led to believe?

A. I guess you'd have to define everything that the public has been led to believe.

Q. The word on the street has always been that he wasn't a very good owner and didn't spend money on the team.

A. I assumed you were going to say what you just said. I wasn't blind or deaf to the fact that was his reputation. Did I see a different side? Not so much when I was playing. It wasn't until later in my career and after the fact that I realized Mr. Culverhouse wasn't willing to keep up with the salary demands of the blue-chip players we needed as an organization to be a winning football team. Little things, too. In our locker room, we had a pay phone and a soda machine.

We literally had to have change to make a phone call or buy a drink. We were charged for little things like our sweatpants when the weather got colder. They took money out of our paychecks. Things like that don't show a true commitment to winning.

From his perspective, he was a businessman and he could make the same amount of money back then -- and I don't fault him for this -- by winning or losing because of the shared revenue amongst the 28 teams. Whether or not the Bucs were Super Bowl contenders or bottom of the division, he would get his equal 1/28th of the pie, and the lower his payroll, the more that went to the bottom line. That was his mentality. I understood that later on in my career, and certainly when I was done playing, and heard stories from players who had played elsewhere.

As a person, I never had a problem with him. He was my boss and I respected him. I enjoyed being in the presence of his wife as well. She went on to be very philanthropic. In my estimation, they were good people, maybe a little different. They had good qualities though, and I'm the type who likes to find good qualities in everybody.

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

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