New article in Sports Illustrated opens old wounds about death of JHS athlete in 1972
Oct 10, 2013 | 10020 views |  0 comments | 60 60 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Dalton Screws might not wear emotions on his sleeves, but the Jacksonville State University and former Wellborn High School football player wears them on his wrists.

When he met with reporters during JSU’s weekly football media day Sept. 30, he wore six wrist bands. Some bore team-first sentiments, but one stood out.

One black wrist band memorialized late Wellborn teammate Aaron “Tootie” Harris, who died during Screws’ senior season with the Panthers.

Screws said he wears it in every game and practice, never takes it off.

“It’s a reminder of what hard work looks like,” he said. “When things get tough, I look back and always think about what he pushed through.

“He definitely wasn’t as fast as the rest of us, but we’d be running stadiums, and he’d be over there, just constantly going, too. Seeing him drop all of that weight just to play — from not being able to get off the ground when he got knocked down to being able to run with the rest of us and actually make time on a gasser — it blew all of our minds.”

Inherent in Screws’ words was an aspirational sense about the content of Harris’ character. Not spoken or even necessary for Screws to say was that he’s white, and Harris was black.

They were teammates, period, and Screws’ affection for Harris is obvious in word and gesture.

The extent to which race relations on the Calhoun County high school football scene used to be different is the question at the heart of a Sports Illustrated article published this week. The article starts with a suggestion that the 1972 death of former Jacksonville High star Anthony O’Dell “Speedy” Cannon after a game at Wellborn was racially motivated murder.

The suggestion comes in the form of an email from a former Jacksonville player and teammate of Cannon’s, Dr. Andy Lamb, who lives in North Carolina. The email was sent to SI writer Thomas Lake by one of Lamb’s sons, Chris Parris-Lamb.

The email mistakenly places the Oct. 6, 1972, game between Jacksonville and Wellborn at Sand Mountain, a memory glitch that might arise from the fact that Jacksonville played at Pisgah a week before. The Jacksonville-Wellborn game was played at Wellborn, which, of course, is west of Anniston.

Lake interviewed several former players and coaches, and the weight of their statements hardly tilts toward Lamb’s accusation. Lake ultimately ended with his own conclusions.

“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,” Lake wrote. “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.”

What’s not in dispute is that Cannon took a hit after falling on the Wellborn sideline, and The Star’s account of the game said the play resulted in a 15-yard penalty.

Cannon later was transported to Anniston Memorial Hospital, then to Carraway in Birmingham, where he died at 3:20 a.m., Oct. 7, as he was being prepared for surgery. He died of a head injury.

Jacksonville was leading the game 14-7 at the time of the third-quarter play, a 31-yard run to the Wellborn 20-yard line. The Golden Eagles went on to score on that drive to lead 21-7, but Wellborn came back to win, 22-21.

Fast-forward 40 years, and Lake followed Lamb’s lead to Anniston, seeking answers. He wrote all that he found and his conclusions 12 months later.

Lake interviewed the Wellborn player who hit Cannon but never named him, calling him only by his jersey number. A video that accompanies the on-line presentation of the story shows No. 70 as the player who hit Cannon.

Lake also chose not to name the Wellborn coach after interviewing him, but Calhoun County high school sports fans know well who coached Wellborn at that time. He’s a member of the Calhoun County Sports Hall of Fame.

“I have nothing to hide in my coaching days,” the 82-year-old Ed Deupree said by telephone Wednesday, from his home in Talladega.

The SI story raised accusations that Deupree told Wellborn players to get Cannon out of the game. Then-Jacksonville assistant coach Frank Burgess said he confronted Deupree the day after the game, when Deupree came to Jacksonville offer condolences to the Golden Eagles’ coaches.

“I said, ‘We know what happened. You told ’em to kill him,’” Burgess is quoted as saying. “And Coach (Jim) Currier (Jacksonville’s head coach, now deceased) told me to shut up.”

Deupree said he doesn’t remember a confrontation in his visit to Jacksonville and denies accusations that he told his players to hurt Cannon.

“There was never anything said, from our standpoint, to try to get him out of the game,” Deupree said. “He was running strong, and naturally, good coaches will say, ‘Someone stop number 32 or 33 or whatever his number is (21). We’ve got to stop him. He’s beating us.’

“That’s simply coaches’ talk. That’s not, ‘We want to kill him.’”

Deupree said he had no motivation to see Cannon hurt.

“I’m not racist,” he said. “I’ll tell you what I am. I’m a born-again Christian of 34 years. Even when I was lost, I didn’t have a heart to try to injure an opponent in any way or any time.”

Deupree expressed disappointment a new story could open old wounds related to Cannon’s death, and he’s not alone.

“It just really troubles me, some of the accusations that were made about that incident, that unfortunate situation,” said Jim Farrell, who covered the 1972 Jacksonville-Wellborn game for The Star. “I just didn’t see anything intentional, and I had a pretty good look at it, too.”

Farrell covered the game from the press box, which was over the home grandstand. He recalled a pall falling over the stadium when Cannon left in an ambulance with about three minutes left in the game.

Events that followed certainly didn’t give the picture of a county torn by racial animus over Cannon’s death.

WHMA helped Jacksonville cheerleaders raise money to cover the cost of Cannon’s funeral and buy him a class ring. About $1,200 was raised in front of the radio station’s building, according to Star reports, and another $1,300 came in phone pledges.

The Anniston Police Department paid for Cannon’s ring. Calls came to the radio station from Talladega, Birmingham and throughout Calhoun County. Money came from the Christian Association of Athletes, football teams, principals of various high schools and other organizations and individuals.

Wellborn players and cheerleaders raised money in their community and eventually sent a check for $695.76. A total of about $4,000 was raised. Wellborn High School also held its own memorial service.

A reported “thousands” of people “old, young, black and white” attended the funeral in Paul Snow Stadium, where Jacksonville played its home games. Choir singers from several churches sang. Telegrams were read aloud.

One telegram came from then-Gov. George Wallace, known for his “Stand at the Schoolhouse Door” and other public displays in support of segregation.

Currier spoke the most piercing words.

“Anthony was like a son to me,” he said at the funeral. “Some people think that’s funny because I’m white and he’s black. But that’s the way it is.”

That’s the way it was following the death of Speedy Cannon. It’s hard to believe it would be much different today.

Sports Columnist Joe Medley: 256-235-3576. On Twitter @jmedley_star..

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