Former Marine Sgt. Ricardo Cannon (14) is fullfilling a lifelong dream of playing college football as a Florida State Seminole defensive back. (Mike Ewen / Tallahassee Democrat)
Wrapped around Ricardo Cannon's neck, wherever he goes, is the memory of two dead Marines. Two heroes. Two ghosts.
On the football practice field, or anywhere else for that matter, the Florida State walk-on defensive back — and four-year veteran of the Marines — makes sure they're with him. Always.
"Marines never die," said Cannon, 25. "Because they live on through other ones. That's why I wear my dog tags."
One is for http://www.militarycity.com/valor/2536513.html">Cpl. Richard O. Quill, who was under Cannon's command at Camp Pendleton in California. Quill was deployed to Iraq after Cannon's service was up. He came home draped in an American flag a few months later. He was 22.
"That was my baby," said Cannon, who was a SWAT Marine for his first two years of duty before becoming a squad leader in a combat platoon.
The other dog tag is for http://www.militarycity.com/valor/2549828.html">Sgt. Maj. Joseph Ellis, a mentor to Cannon while he was in the Corps.
"He was the probably the greatest man I ever met," Cannon said.
This is how the greatest man he ever met was killed in action.
"He and my buddy, Emery, were at an entry-control checkpoint, and somebody ran up there with a bomb strapped to themselves," Cannon said. "Sergeant Major saw him coming and he dove in front of [Emery] while the guy was approaching. He dove in front and took the brunt of the blast. And it killed him."
So no, the dog tags aren't for show. They aren't for attention. They are a sacred reminder of the life — and the death — of two U.S. Marines.
The story of how they came to be worn on the Florida State practice field is one that reads like a Hollywood script.
Kid from Michigan falls in love with the FSU uniform as a child. Becomes a die-hard Seminoles fan. Cries when they lose and flies above the clouds when they win.
Moves to Sarasota with his mother and goes out for the Riverview High football team, but is quickly told that — since he's a talented point guard and vital to the success of that team — he has to choose between the two sports.
He chooses basketball.
He was good enough to perhaps play at a small college. His grades were high enough to get him into most universities. It didn't matter. He was going to be a Marine.
"I'm physically fit," Cannon said when asked why he joined. "I can fight. So I thought why shouldn't I defend this country? Why shouldn't I join the Marine Corps?
"Why does it have to be the bottom of the barrel? Why does it have to be the guys that can't go to college? Why can't it be the top athletes — the people that are capable of being on ESPN? Why don't the best protect the country? That's what other countries do.
"So that's why I did it."
By sheer luck, he never goes to Iraq. Or Afghanistan. A month before he was expecting to be in the Middle East, his platoon gets new orders and is sent to the Pacific, going back and forth between Japan and the Philippines.
Though he was in an elite combat unit, trained for warfare in Iraq and trained other soldiers that went to Iraq, Cannon never saw any combat himself.
He admits that's been tough to wrestle with ever since he got out. Especially with those two ghosts wrapped around his neck.
"You can't put yourself in a more prime position to see combat [than I did]," Cannon said. "And I definitely struggle with it. I struggle with it all the time.
"It's definitely a sore spot. I just know I'm lucky to be here. There are a lot of guys that aren't here. I'm no better than them. In fact, they were better than I was …"
It's here, in the middle of this sentence that Cannon's voice catches. His eyes begin to redden. He takes a moment, a deep sigh, and continues.
"So, it's rough," he said. "But you live through it. That's kind of the way it is."
When he got out of the Marines in 2006, Cannon tried to enroll at his dream school. But he was told he couldn't be accepted at Florida State as a transfer because he only has nine hours of post-high-school credits (from some online classes he took while serving).
So he enrolls at South Florida for one semester then transfers to FSU.
A die-hard fan
In January 2007, he takes his first class in Tallahassee.
Being the die-hard fan that he is, he goes to every home football game that year. He celebrates every touchdown, deflates with every loss.
Then one day it occurs to him. Instead of cheering for the team, why not join it?
Sure, he's never played organized football, but why not try? And that's exactly what he did in the summer of 2008.
"I've just always had a passion for football," Cannon said. "So I was like, ‘Why not?'"
Cannon, who plans to graduate in December with a degree in political science, is never going to start at FSU. He knows that. His teammates and coaches know that.
They also know, first-hand now, that FSU football is his passion.
"When we had Seminole Showtime [in July], he stood up and spoke and told everybody in there how much Florida State meant to him," junior cornerback Ochuko Jenije said. "And how he would wake up early in the morning overseas, like 3 a.m., just to watch a Florida State game. That's how big it was to him."
Said senior safety Korey Mangum: "He's always telling us about it, how big a fan he was. Not many people get to live their dream. He's living his dream."
Always a Marine
And now the 5-foot-10, 175-pound defensive back works mainly on the defensive scout team, helping the offense prepare for the upcoming foe. He has a work ethic and a level of physical fitness that his teammates, and defensive coordinator Mickey Andrews, can hardly believe.
"I wish all of our guys that know they're going to be playing on Monday night would prepare like he does in trying to help our offense," Andrews said. "That makes him special right there."
Said Jenije: "He's probably in the best shape of anyone on the team. He really is. … After each session [of mat drills], he would be coming up and high-fiving everybody when they were all keeled over. I don't think he ever gets tired."
Once a Marine, always a Marine.
Cannon dressed for two games last year but didn't play. He admits he would love to get just one snap — just one — in a real-life Florida State football game. Even if it's on kickoff coverage.
"It would legitimize everything," said Cannon, who hopes to work in the FBI after he graduates. "That's what the goal is. That's what I'm working toward. I know there might be players that are more talented and are faster, but it's not going to mean as much when they go down there [on kickoff coverage]."
Even if it doesn't happen, even if he never gets his "Rudy" moment inside Doak Campbell Stadium, the last two years have still felt like a feel-good movie.
"I'd like to think I've got more talent than Rudy," he said with a laugh. "But, yeah, it's almost exactly like that."
He remembers watching former superstars like Warrick Dunn, Charlie Ward and Terrell Buckley as a kid. He remembers those painful, soul-crushing wide rights. He remembers getting up at 3 a.m., half a world away, and walking across a Marine base to watch the 2005 Florida State-Miami game.
On Monday night, improbably, he'll be on the sideline for his own Florida State-Miami game. Wearing No. 14. Soaking up every last second.
"Coming from the odds I came from," Cannon said. "Being the size I am, having no background in football and being able to do this — I know I'll be able to look my son in the eye and tell him, ‘You can do whatever you want. If you put in your mind, you can go get it.' "