He was a model citizen on campus,” said Neil Gardner, SUU’s former Sports Information Director. “He was the all- American boy.”
Gardner is talking about Matt Cannon, SUU’s decorated football player-turned- board of
Cannon’s term on the Board ended last year, but his exploits as a wishbone quarterback live on 20 years after his graduation.
No quarterback at the FCS/Division 1-AA level has run for more yards or touchdowns. He ran for 343 yards more than FBS/Division 1A’s all time QB leader, former Navy standout Keenan Reynolds, on 303 fewer attempts. Cannon is one of only five players to play at this level to gain over 3,000 yards rushing and 3,000 yards passing.
Students who attended SUU in the late 90s will also remember Cannon’s involvement in student government and the infallible kindness that made him special.
People never just talk about what Matt Cannon did on the field. They first mention his leadership or his empathy or recount a story of a nice thing he said or did.
“He was as good a teammate as I’d ever coached,” said former SUU head coach C. Ray Gregory. “He’d do anything for his teammates, gave quality leadership and he was a great student. There was nothing he couldn’t do.”
Professors also recall Cannon’s diligence in class.
“Oh, he was a great student,” said Dr. Jim Aton of the English department.
“And a great football player, too.”
The number nine and the name Cannon are emblazoned in heroic font inside Eccles Coliseum. The black lettering hangs below SUU’s press box at the fifty yard line. The records and accomplishments he achieved motivated SUU to retire his number just eight years after his final game as a T-Bird.
For Cannon, it didn’t seem like he’d ever reach such heights. Cannon battled back from injury at Highland Highschool, and it seemed liked his football career would end in the state championship game.
The undersized athlete excelled at running the wishbone at Highland, and when he graduated he hoped to take his skills to the next level. He visited local favorites BYU and the University of Utah but received no formal scholarship offer.
Cannon elected to serve an LDS mission and was sent to Germany. He was called to the same mission that his older brother, his father and his grandfather had all served in. His connection to the country would run deeper later in life.
After he returned home, he just wanted to get back on the field.
The Air Force Academy extended Cannon a lone Division I opportunity before his mission, but Cannon knew he wanted to serve a mission first.
Upon his return from Germany he learned that SUU had implemented the wishbone under Coach Gregory and they wanted him to run it. He visited Cedar City and immediately knew he had found the right fit.
“He had a bit of a chip on his shoulder because he had to play at [the FCS/1- AA] level,” Coach Gregory said. “I think that motivated him. I think he thought he was going to be part of something special, too. We were just lucky we got him.”
Coach Gregory already had an established quarterback in Joe Dupaix, but was intrigued by Cannon’s athleticism and versatility.
When Coach Gregory wanted his punt team to embrace a rugby- inspired style, Cannon tried out and was named the team’s punter. Coach Gregory called a fake on Cannon’s first snap and the freshman took it 80 yards to the house.
“It was fourth-and-10 from our own twenty yard line and he was just a true freshman,” Coach Gregory said. “He took off with the ball, and he’s probably still running with it. We knew we had something special.”
When reminded of the story, Cannon is quick to point out that the fake wasn’t the first time he touched the ball, because he actually fielded the opening kickoff, so his first touch technically happened then.
“I remember catching the ball, and I just got blindsided,” Cannon recalls. “I thought I was going to be done for the day.”
His speed and determination were too great to keep him off the field. Coach Gregory asked him to start taking snaps at slotback later that game. He ran for over 100 yards and four touchdowns. Cannon started the rest of the season at running back, but played the next three years under center.
In a sense, that’s why Cannon fell in love with SUU.
“One of the great aspects of Southern Utah University is that it allows individuals to get involved,” Cannon said. “There’s opportunities everywhere. I am so grateful for academics and student government because I knew my window of opportunity for football would be short, so those experiences prepared me for my future.”
Before the window closed, Cannon ran Coach Gregory’s wishbone to the tune of consecutive winning seasons in 1999 and 2000. Cannon read the defense, emerged as the team’s leader and ran the football. A lot.
Only five times have SUU rushers carried the ball for more than 1,300 yards in a season. Cannon did it three times. He became the first Thunderbird to run for 20 touchdowns in 1999 and then did it again in 2000.
Off the field, Cannon gave the student commencement address in 2001, served as the Chief Justice of SUU’s student court and held various student government positions. He was also a Valedictorian for the College of Humanities.
The itch to keep playing persisted after graduation, but Cannon struggled to garner interest from the NFL. He considered playing in Canada before he got a phone call from a team in the German Football League.
The Hamburg Blue Devils needed
a QB and they had heard about Cannon’s FCS/I-AA success. They called him up and gave him a contract offer. Hamburg had no idea he’d lived in Germany before, but Cannon was ecstatic to return.
Cannon led the Blue Devils to the German Bowl (in essence the German Super Bowl) in 2001. For the first time in his career he ran a pro-style offense with an increased emphasis on passing.
“It was a blast,” Cannon said. “Already knowing the language and the culture made it easier for me to get immersed and I really loved my teammates.”
Fate brought Cannon and his young family back to Europe. Cannon and his wife, Jen, would travel to Denmark and France on off-weeks.
After four seasons in the triple-option run-heavy wishbone, Cannon had to learn a new system and hoped that his time in the more traditional system might prepare him for the NFL.
Without hesitation, Cannon recounts a number of his teammates’ backgrounds from his time in Hamburg. The GFL (which still operates today) ended up being Cannon’s last hurrah in football.
“It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Cannon said. “It was awesome to get paid to play a sport and travel around.”
The NFL showed little interest in Cannon even after his German Bowl MVP, so Cannon applied to BYU’s
J. Reuben Clark Law School. He graduated magna cum laude.
In 2013, Cannon was sworn in as a member of SUU’s Board of Trustees, serving a four-year term.
“Not a week goes by that I don’t think of my time and my friendships down at SUU and in the community of Cedar City,” Cannon concluded.
There aren’t many weeks that go by where a resident doesn’t think of the All-American boy, Matt
Story by: Connor Sanders
Photos courtesy of SUU Athletics