I was 17 and a senior on the football team. It was the third game of the season. “Speedy” was our star halfback. The place Alabama, the year 1972, and Speedy was Black. Our high school was well integrated for the time because of its proximity to a military post. The majority of the schools against which we competed, though, were still largely segregated. Skin color defined who you were and racism, in all its ugliness, came to play on the football field that night. Hate letters, filled with racial slurs, threats of injury, and even death, had arrived at our school the week prior. They warned us not to bring our “n—–s,” in particular, Speedy.
It was early in the third quarter. We were winning, and Speedy was having a great game. Despite the threats, thus far, it was simply a hard-fought football game. Then it happened. I played defense, so I was standing on the sidelines when Speedy came running by for a 20-yard gain. Five yards past me, he was knocked out of bounds. As he rolled on his back, the play was called dead, and another opposing player dived headfirst, spearing Speedy’s helmet with his. Speedy did not get up. The coaches rushed over and, after a few minutes, he was taken away by ambulance. We lost the game.
We did not hear anything further until the following morning. The coaches called our homes. Speedy was dead! Disbelief and shock set in. Anger soon followed. The threats had become more than words. As a team, we watched the game film and “the hit”– rewinding, replaying, reliving that tragic moment. We all felt it was intentional, and that Speedy had been targeted. We wanted something done. We wanted justice. We wanted revenge. Nothing ever happened, though, not even a penalty for the late hit. In the world that was Alabama, it was simply an unfortunate accident, a part of the game. I cried, we all cried, and our lives were changed forever.
Why write this story when it has nothing to do with medicine? I write it so you may have a better understanding of who I am as a person, as a leader, someone who hates prejudice and injustice. I write it so those too young to have known that period of history may better understand how far we have come, yet how far we still have to go. I write because life is precious, and there is no guarantee of tomorrow. I write because Speedy’s story still needs to be known.
For those interested, this story was published in the October 14, 2013 issue of Sports Illustrated. It can be accessed by going to SI.COM/speedy and scrolling down to the link “The Ghost of Speedy Cannon.” You can watch the hit on a segment of the 8 mm game film.
Andy Lamb is an internal medicine physician. He can be reached at Bugle Notes.
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