By Dr. Ken 


If college or professional football fans remember John Whitfield “Whit” Canale or his brother Dominic Justin Canale, they probably live in the area surrounding Memphis, Tennessee. Even as pro players, Whit briefly with the Dolphins and Patriots and Justin in a longer career with the Patriots, Bengals, and in the CFL and WFL, they were not stars, nor “name players,” yet held the respect of their teammates and those who knew them.  From a family of athletes, the Canales have maintained a place in the history of Memphis athletics that is enviable and extensive.

Whit Canale at Tennessee, 1964

With three brothers who played football for the University of Tennessee and three for Mississippi State University, there is a strong case to support the comment from their cousin Billy Tagg that “They are the greatest football family that ever came out of Memphis…and I’m not sure they’re not the greatest to ever play the game of college football.” To others lacking knowledge about Memphis area football, this might sound like hyperbole but for those who saw the Canale clan play, the argument that many have made is compelling. In an era seemingly lost to the progress of technology, urban sprawl, and the erosion of old fashioned values, the Canales did it the old fashioned way, they earned it!


Patriarch George Canale and his brother Frank played at Notre Dame, setting the precedent for athletic success and the University of Tennessee enjoyed the services of George’s sons Frank, George, and John Whitfield while Mississippi State successfully recruited the three younger brothers, Dominic Justin, Billy, and Conn. The physical preparation varied little from eldest to youngest with “strength training” consisting of hard and heavy work on the family farm with an emphasis on baling hay, and night time running through fields illuminated by car lights for so-called “cardio work.”  Described variously as “country strong,” “looking like Greek Gods,” and “Paul Bunyanesque” in a number of articles, the boys became powerful not from weight training which was in its infancy for athletes in their day, but instead due to the daily work done on the farm and the chores that were part and parcel of rural life in a by-gone era. Justin at 6’2”, 250 pounds could explode a regulation basketball by squeezing it between his hands.  As described by one reporter, “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.” Stars at Memphis Catholic High School For Boys, the older brothers began the trek to the Southeastern Conference.

Brother Frank walked on at Tennessee and earned a scholarship, opening the door for George and Whit. With George lettering from 1960 through ’62 and putting his name into the UT record books with a 17.5 per carry rushing average in a ’62 game versus Chattanooga, and Whit earning his letters in 1962 and ’64 as a tight end, the Vols could point to three brothers lettering in that same ‘62 season.

George Canale set a decades-long Tennessee rushing record

Justin wasn’t as quick to sign on with Tennessee. In a period where the Vols were running an antiquated offense in the Single Wing and having difficulty keeping up with the better teams in the Southeastern Conference (See Helmethut) http://www.helmethut.com/College/Tennessee/TNXXUT6363.html  Justin would not respond well to the high pressure recruiting tactics used by UT head coach Bowden Wyatt and instead blazed the trail south for his younger brothers Billy and Conn at Mississippi State.

Parents George and Augusta would drive from their Germantown, TN farm to see as many games as possible and it became rather big local news in the Memphis and northern Mississippi region when the Volunteers and the Bulldogs faced off. With four sons on the field in 1962, three in orange and white, one in maroon and white, they chose to sit in the end zone instead of favoring one side of the field over the other. With six brothers having played SEC football by the time the boys completed their collegiate careers, the Canales were something akin to football royalty in their part of the country.

 Justin Canale #63 leads the pass blocking for Babe Parilli


Justin and Whit were considered to be tremendous physical specimens for their era, at 250 and 245 pounds respectively. Involved with track and field, the “field” part of the equation may have been obvious with Justin winning an SEC shot put championship but if one can picture what one competitor described as “a freight train coming down the tracks,” they can then imagine what Whit looked like competing in the 100-yard sprints. Another of the family traits commented upon by all who knew them or played with them, was that they were “raised right” with the entire Canale family known for being strong, athletic, tough, hard working, and exceptionally polite. Constant comment from those who had long term or casual contact with them was that all of the Canale boys answered with “Yes, Sir,” or “Yes, Ma’am” at all times and in all situations. Of course, on the football field, there are those who would be quick to note that their style of play, while within the rules, was far from polite. As an offensive guard and place kicker, Justin progressed through a professional career that saw him with the American Football League Boston Patriots from 1965 through ’68 and the Cincinnati Bengals in 1969. He went to the Canadian Football League, playing with the Grey Cup Champion Montreal Alouettes in ’70 and remaining with them through ’72 before playing with Calgary in ’73. He returned home to play two seasons with the Memphis Southmen of the World Football League before returning to the CFL for a final season with Toronto in 1976.



He was able to extend his career and continued to play well after including weight training as part of his football preparation program. Observing Justin, one would not think he needed to do much weight training as even into his sixties, he remained a well built, tremendously powerful individual despite undergoing twenty operations for football related injuries. In 1970 Justin and his younger brother Conn joined their father in the grocery business, becoming very well known locally for serving smoked ham sandwiches that were featured on various television food-related programs and news features. While Memphis has always been known for its great barbeque, the Canale smoked boneless ham sandwiches became a staple in their locale with Conn, a former safety at Mississippi State, manning the role of daily smoke master. Conn, who played quarterback at Memphis Christian Brothers High School, was deceptively strong at 5’11” and 180 pounds and was rather pleased that in later years, Justin shared his former SEC shot put championship technique with the throwers at his alma mater.


Unfortunately, Whit passed away on September 17, 2011 and Justin followed almost immediately afterwards on October 11. They left many friends through a variety of businesses that their large family was involved with and a legacy of good will and athletic prowess that has made them all time stars in the Memphis area. A Memphis-based friend of the author made comments shortly after Justin’s passing that summed up his life well, “You remember I put you in touch with Justin a few years ago. He was so sweet and special. He was always so humble, nice, and helpful to everyone in the weight room. I worked out with him the night the WFL folded. He was truly one of a kind who had a positive effect on everyone he met. He’ll truly be missed. I am still touched by Justin’s humility and deference. He was deferential to the young and weak as well as everyone else.  Justin was truly a gentle giant.  He had the most unusual and incredible personality for a giant pro football player. What a contrast with most pro athletes. He was very special.”