The Ghost of Speedy Cannon

Tom Lake: In Andy Lamb’s memory, a football field is the scene of a murder. The victim is black, the killer white, the weapon a helmet. The year is 1972, the place Alabama. The motive is racial hatred.

Dr. Lamb has told this story many times in the past 41 years: to his sons at the table, to friends around the world. It happened before his eyes, and it still plays in his mind, over and over, like a clip from a film.

When I heard the story last year, I went to Alabama to see if it was true.

10 thoughts on “The Ghost of Speedy Cannon

  1. This is a pretty great story, Thomas. I also think it strikes the right balance in the Snowfall design spectrum. Being able to see the film makes a huge difference to the experience. Excited if this is now something SI is going to do regularly.

    Also: Longform since 1954 is a rock-solid bitch slap.

  2. Thank you, Jones. Yes, this story is the first in a regular series of online-only pieces with special design. We’ve got a few others in the bank that’ll be coming out soon.

  3. I’ve been in north Alabama for 40 years. I’m pretty sure that good ol’ boy, and all his buddies, were talking a lot of sh_t the week leading up to a game in which the opposing team had a star black player.

    I went to public school for 12 years and never had a black classmate, so I know the type of talk (which is all it is 99.999% of the time) and attitudes that manifest as a result when situations similar to this come up. These teenagers at Walter Wellborn High, or any all white high school in the deep south in that era, grow up around all white folks that grew up around all white folks, most never even knowing a black person and referring to folks of a different race with colorful derogatory slang, the same as their daddy’s and grandaddy’s did before them. This really doesn’t translate to hate, as most might think, but more likely fear. I’m sure it’s the same vice versa.

    But to open the door to to calling this tragedy a murder is a bit of a stretch. I don’t know if you’ve ever played football, but if you have you know there were guys that would try to literally take your head off, particularity if you were impacting the game negatively for them. This was an encouraged behavior, by teammates and coaches. Every now and then somebody gets a little too aggressive at a place or time they shouldn’t have and does something stupid, just like #70 did. Sure, most likely he called black people names he shouldn’t have, but that bad behavior is as far as you can get from murder, white or black. It works both ways. . .

    There’s no shade of grey here, just somebody doing something stupid. I’ve seen that exact same thing happen on the field many times, white and black players alike. It was stupid every time, but I’m positive that in every one of those situations no one was trying to truly kill anyone.

  4. Great story bc i just became a dad and football is what I want my son to play. It breaks my heart to think this was just a personal foul on a person, when that hit was to cause damage. Which led to a young man, I hear was a great person, to miss out on this beautiful world. Hatred is a wasted energy. So I pray for my son.

  5. The thing I like most about this story (and there’s a lot to like) is the way TL withholds the identity of No. 70. He remains nameless and faceless, which underscores the idea that Speedy Cannon wasn’t killed by an individual so much as he was by a horrible ideal.

  6. Thanks for taking us along for the ride with your reporting, Tom. I’m curious if there’s anything more from that clip of the fateful play. Is there video of the supposed flag waving? The clip that was linked ended so fast I had to watch it four or five times just to get what was happening.

    And Jones is right, love the SI tagline on the page.

  7. Thank you, Michael and Charlie.

    In the available video footage from that game, I couldn’t see anyone waving a Confederate flag. But that’s not surprising, because the camera doesn’t move around much, and the film cuts away the moment after each play and doesn’t come back until the next play begins. So there’s a lot of context lost.

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