John Cannon was an undersize defensive end for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers when they wore uniforms the color of orange sherbet. He went to the playoffs in his rookie year, 1982, then endured nothing but doldrums until retiring nine years later at age 31. "I didn't feel I could play at the level to be competitive, to help the team win," he says. "It was the result of being beat up. I had three knee injuries, pinched nerves in my neck, broken bones, which I learned to play through. But I wanted to be able to be active at age 50."
Cannon, now 43 and living in south Tampa, says he went through a "delayed grieving" process with football. At first, he enjoyed the lack of militaristic structure in his life and relished developing a new career as a financial adviser. He didn't miss getting pounded, didn't even miss the competition. He took a couple of years off to mend and heal while staying in shape in the weight room.
"After a couple of years I started feeling better, and I looked around and saw my former team playing better, and I started to second-guess myself," Cannon says. "I thought I could play another couple of years. I missed the camaraderie, everything that went along with playing on Sundays in the NFL."
Right around that time, a friend introduced Cannon to the triathlon. It was perfect for the tenacious ex-Buc; he'd even been a competitive swimmer as a kid. Cannon, 6-foot-5, shed about 50 pounds to reach 215 and began competing in the "Clydesdale" division, for triathletes over 200 pounds.
In 2000, he won the world championship for competitors under 40 and over 225 pounds. He was 39 at the time. Cannon has run five marathons and done two Iron Man triathlons in Hawaii.
The former lineman has an advantage when it comes to keeping any physical decline in perspective. Older athletes engaged in individual sports — especially endurance events like running, biking, swimming or bicycling — have an amateur infrastructure that allows them to compete in five-year age groups. "It helps that as you age you're competing with people who are going through the same physical changes," he explains.
Cannon will soon look to further athletic challenges. He's now studying to become a fire department paramedic. He thinks firefighter competitions might make for a nice challenge. "It's a whole new realm, and I don't know much about it," he says. "But I'm definitely going to look into it."