Friday, October 14, 2011

Ode to Justin Canale: A Gentle Giant of Sport is Dead

Posted By on Fri, Oct 14, 2011 at 2:51 PM

Justin Canale (far left)
  • Justin Canale (far left)
Justin Canale, a former college and professional football player and icon to an older generation of Memphians, died this week. He was 68 years old.

Justin and his five brothers, all of whom would play football at Tennessee or Mississippi State, were the subject of a story in Sports Illustrated in 1964 that compared the family farm to a gladiatorial training ground. Whit Canale, Justin's older brother, died three weeks ago.

Justin played offensive guard and kicker for Mississippi State in the Joe Namath years of the Southeastern Conference. From 1965-1975, he played for the Boston Patriots of the AFL, the Cincinnati Bengals of the NFL, the Memphis Southmen of the World Football League, and three different pro teams in Canada. He kicked straight on, old-school style, and could make them from 50 yards. He underwent 20 operations for football injuries, some performed by his cousin, Dr. Terry Canale of the Campbell Clinic.

A Paul Bunyanesque character said to be able to pop a basketball by squeezing it in his hands, Justin Canale was known for both his physical strength and his gentle disposition. As high school and college stars in Memphis and at rival colleges, the games where Whit and Justin squared off were legendary. They were a newspaper photographer's dream as they posed in a three-point stance or with their mother kissing one or the other of them on the cheek. Justin also starred in track and once tossed the shot put 58 feet to win the SEC meet.

Every 98-pound-weakling in Memphis in the early Sixties would have given his Converse All-Stars, Superman comics collection, and allowance to look like Justin and Whit Canale in blues jeans and t-shirts.

"I remember him as being like a Greek god," said his cousin, Drew Canale. "He and Whit were huge men. As a little boy, they scared me to death. Justin was probably the best known of all the Canales. He was a gentle giant."

Another cousin, Billy Tagg, said the Canales "were the politest people. Everything was yes ma'am and yes sir. Their mantra was 'say what you mean and mean what you say.' I never saw them bullshit anyone."

The Tagg clan also included some robust lads who probably could have combined with the Canales to field a football team that would have whipped Ole Miss without going outside the family gene pool.

I got to know Justin several years ago while doing research for a magazine article. He insisted on calling me "Mr. Branston" although I was several years his junior, and if he was behind the register at the family grocery store in Eads, I had as much chance of paying for a ham sandwich as I did of beating him at arm wrestling. Even in the age of weight training, he was one of the most massive men I have ever seen, with forearms and shoulders built up by farm work and hefting axles long ago at the family's Sinclair Station on Union Avenue.

The funeral is Saturday at 11 a.m. at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Church in Germantown.

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