DT James Cannida notched his first preseason sack against Washington
On Thursday, James Cannida went about his business in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' locker room with an Atlanta Braves cap pulled over his shaved head.
At least, we're told it's a Braves hat. Translation was necessary, because instead of the traditional script 'A', the front of the hat bore an Oriental symbol supposedly meaning the same thing.
And that describes Cannida right now: an obvious message distorted.
Take his name. Seems straightforward enough but it is routinely butchered by public address announcers, reporters, scouts, and if you go back far enough, teachers. It's pronounced Canada, like the country. Of course it is…seems obvious now, doesn't it? Well, don't feel bad if you guessed wrong…it hasn't always been that simple. Cannida says his father and grandmother pronounced it can-a-dee.
"One day, my gym teacher said 'Canada' when he was calling roll. I was looking around and he said 'James…(pause)…Cannida.' And I said, 'Yeah, that's me'. It just went from there because it was easy for everyone to say."
Or take his 2000 story with the Bucs. This is a man who has earned increased playing time on the Bucs' defensive line with a sudden surge in practice at the end of last season, a phenomenal spring and an eye-opening preseason. Yet, when it becomes clear that he will get that playing time, the news goes hand-in-hand with the decision to release Brad Culpepper, a move that caught Bucs fans by surprise.
For that matter, take Cannida himself. He's a friendly guy, quick to laugh or joke – he even considered himself a trash-talker in college – but he has unintentionally cultivated the image of a quiet, introspective man for two years in the Bucs' locker room. "If you went to my mom and said, 'You know, your son is really quiet', she'd laugh at you," he said. "She wouldn't believe that you said that to her."
Nobody's saying that Cannida's a contradiction, just that we have a lot to learn about him. That should occur in 2000, because he will move up a notch on the totem pole this year and become a more regular member of the defensive tackle rotation.
Warren Sapp will be joined in the starting lineup by Anthony McFarland, and Cannida will be the primary backup at nose tackle and a potential fill-in at Sapp's under tackle spot as well. He has just 12 games and two tackles on his resume through his first two NFL seasons, but he should have the opportunity to pump those numbers up considerably in 2000. Cannida, however, isn't setting any numerical goals.
"I just want to take it step by step," he said. "I want to fit into this defense and play well. If I get five plays, 10 plays a game – whatever it may be – I just want to go out there and do well. I don't want to be the one guy who comes in and messes up and lets something good happen for the other team."
Given the approach Cannida has taken to his NFL career, that is not likely to happen. A sixth-round draft choice in 1998 by a team that was already developing a serious reputation on the defensive line, the Nevada-Reno prospect came in determined to quietly absorb as much as he could. When playing time failed to develop over the past two years, he swallowed his disappointment and worked harder. Now that he is earmarked for a larger role, he is determined to maintain that same work ethic.
"I have been itching to play," he said. "But, at the same time, I'm glad I've been patient. It would have been really easy for me to just get upset and mad, and have a bad attitude about everything. I almost caught myself doing that, but I changed my mind. I stayed and listened to Rod and Monte and the staff. I tried to get a lot better at the end of last year, and I think I started practicing better and learning how to work better. And I think that's what helped me going into camp this year.
"In the offseason, I just knew I had to work harder. No matter what happened, I knew I had to work hard and do the right thing, and I think it paid off. I had been itching a lot to play, and know I just hope I can continue to play like I did in the preseason when the games start to count."
Cannida's eight tackles through three preseason games was tied with Marcus Jones' total for the most among the team's defensive linemen, and Cannida is one of 11 different Bucs who accounted for the team's 13 tackles. But his performance has been deeper than his numbers. A member of the Bucs' scouting department offered, unsolicited, several other areas in which the third-year pro has excelled: holding the point at nose tackle, handling moving double-teams and moving quickly down the line horizontally to get in on tackles. That final point is key; the Bucs want hustling players up front, and that has always been Cannida's calling card.
"I had it in high school, but it wasn't consistent then," said Cannida. "It was weird when I got here, because in college they graded 'loafs' just like the defensive staff does here. The only thing is, if we had a loaf in college, we had to run after practice on Monday. So everybody picked up the habit of always running and keeping it going full-speed. That way, you didn't have to run extra on Monday after practice."
Cannida constantly took that risk, though, because he rarely missed a game, just one in four years at Nevada-Reno. In that time, he racked up 208 tackles and 17 sacks and managed to improve his play every year. He even learned a valuable lesson about when not to push it.
"When I missed that one game my senior year, they had to tape me down, strap me down to the table because I wanted to play," he said. "But, you know, it was the best thing for me because I got my knee right and I came back strong and was able to play. It was just hard for me to sit back and watch.
"Every coach on every level says, 'You have to know the difference between pain and an injury. If you have a little pain, you can play with it. But if you're injured, you can't play.' You have to know the difference."
He came back from that one-game torture as revved up as ever and played well enough down the stretch to catch a few NFL eyes, including the Buccaneers. Coming out of college, he didn't have the 'ideal' NFL height and weight (he's 6-2, 291) and perhaps not the quickness of a Warren Sapp (who does?), but he had those traits in reasonable amounts and he jacked them up with an engine that never quit. As early as the day he was drafted, the Bucs were describing him as a 'high-motor' player. He came in that way and, if anything, is even more energetic now.
"I try to pattern it after Warren and the way a lot of those guys play on the defensive line: full-speed, up-tempo," said Cannida. "I try to make plays and make things happen.
"There's a lot of different defenses in the league. I think this one fits my body type, how I'm built – and how these guys play. You look around and think that we might be one of the smallest defensive lines in the league, but you can't take away from how any of the starters play. I think this works out for me."
Of course, 'high-motor' isn't really enough to describe a player in full. Asked for a bit of self-scouting, Cannida came up with this: "I might say a run-stopper with a high motor and a lot of energy. But I think I'm starting to become a better pass-rusher now, too. I'm learning how to rush better after working with (Defensive Line Coach) Rod (Marinelli) for two years, learning how things are done and watching the guys that are ahead of me. Generally, though, I guess I'm a better run stopper."
Cannida did both in high school and college. He also played both sides of the U.S., growing up in Savannah, Georgia but moving to Fremont, California at the age of 14. He was in both places long enough to adopt a little culture from each.
"I get teased a lot still from my friends in Georgia and my friends in California, even the guys here now give me a hard time and tell me I don't know where I'm from," said Cannida. "They say that whatever's convenient for me at the time, that's where they say I'm from."
He has no obvious accent.
"I moved before my voice changed," said Cannida with a laugh. "I got out in time before I had a Southern drawl."
That's Cannida: a Californian southerner.