If there was ever a figure that epitomized the ideal of gridiron glory in the 1950s and 1960s it was Billy Cannon.
We fondly remember LSHOF inductee and state football icon Billy Cannon on his birthday. The 1959 Heisman winner and AFL legend passed away earlier this year. pic.twitter.com/m1e2T2S3qG
— Louisiana Sports HOF (@LaSportsHall) August 2, 2018
Cannon was a superstar at LSU and then spent a decade in the NFL.
His play captivated a nation, especially fans of football in Louisiana and the American South.
Cannon’s fame was such that fans would come from several hours away just to watch him play.
After football, Cannon would find both success and legal trouble in the business world.
However, despite his imperfections, Cannon is still viewed as a football icon that others can only aspire to.
This is the story of Billy Cannon.
William Abb Cannon was born on August 3, 1937, in Philadelphia, Mississippi.
During World War II, the Cannon family moved to Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
Cannon enjoyed sports and played football and basketball and participated in track and field at Istrouma High School in Baton Rouge.
As a senior in 1955, Cannon scored a mind-blowing 39 touchdowns on the way to a state championship.
The Istrouma team was so good that year that Cannon mostly played only in the first half of each contest.
LSHOF members Billy Cannon, Doug Williams, Johnny Robinson and David Toms in 10-member La. High School Sports Hall of Fame class https://t.co/GadYSmCLGm
— Louisiana Sports HOF (@LaSportsHall) January 31, 2020
His efforts on the field led Cannon to be voted as a high school All-American and an All-State athlete.
In track, he further showed off his speed and strength by running the 100-yard dash in 9.6 seconds and throwing the shot put over 56 feet.
Both marks were state records at the time.
While opponents had trouble keeping up with Cannon the athlete, Cannon could, on occasion, find trouble for himself away from sports.
In the summer before his senior year, he received a 90-day suspended sentence for theft when Cannon and some friends were caught extorting money from men who had visited prostitutes.
Cannon and his group would wait near bars and follow men with prostitutes to hotel rooms.
When the men left their rooms, Cannon and his buddies would threaten to tell their wives about the tryst.
“We were not only stupid. We were criminal,” Cannon said in his book Billy Cannon: A Long, Long Run. “We were taking advantage of people. What we were doing was wrong. We knew it was wrong. But it was adventurous. It was fun, and it was profitable. I was a thug. If I wasn’t, I was closely in the making.”
With that unpleasantness and his senior year behind him, Cannon was off to college.
He had interest in the University of Florida and Ole Miss.
However, Cannon decided to stay home and attend LSU when the school offered him a job at a car dealership between semesters.
Cannon’s mother also thought he needed to be closer to home.
“Mommy was older and wiser, and I followed her advice,” said Cannon in 1959.
Cannon becomes a Star at LSU
Cannon was ineligible to play at LSU in 1956 because he was a freshman, although he did get married to his high school sweetheart, Dot Dupuy, that year.
He saw considerable playing time in 1957 as a sophomore sharing the backfield with Jim Taylor.
Taylor was a great back in his own right and would eventually star in the NFL with the Green Bay Packers.
Not only did Cannon play halfback, he also played in the secondary and punted the ball.
He announced his arrival on the national scene in ‘57 during the Tigers’ game against Alabama.
That day, Cannon carried the ball only eight times but rushed for 140 yards and a touchdown.
Then, against Texas Tech a week later, he punted the ball five times for a 40-yard average, caught a 59-yard pass for a touchdown, ran a kickoff back for a score, rushed for 36 yards, and threw four passes, completing two of them for 31 yards.
— Ross Dellenger (@RossDellenger) December 24, 2015
The key to the game for LSU was the fact that Texas Tech was busy watching Taylor.
They didn’t realize the Tigers had a sophomore that could also carry the day.
“They were just wearing Jimmy (Taylor) out,” Cannon said. “Of course, they weren’t looking for me. They just beat the devil out of Jimmy. With them focusing on Jimmy, I had a great game.”
Despite their early success, LSU finished the ‘57 season at 5-5.
Cannon was selected for the Associated Press SEC All-Sophomore team and the United Press International All-SEC second team.
He would finish the year as the nation’s leading kick returner with a 31.2 yards per return average.
In 1958, Taylor was off to the NFL and Cannon received even more carries.
After rushing for 583 yards in his sophomore year, Cannon ran the pigskin 115 times for 686 yards as a junior.
His play that season helped propel the Tigers to an 11-0 record and the national championship.
During the Sugar Bowl against Clemson, Cannon was responsible for the team’s victory.
He threw a touchdown pass to receiver Mickey Mangham and then kicked the extra point in the 7-0 win.
With the season concluded, Cannon was named the SEC’s MVP, a first-team All-American, voted to the All-SEC team, and named player of the year by several organizations.
The Halloween Run and Winning the Heisman
Fresh off their championship in 1958, the Tigers began the 1959 season like they were shot out of a cannon (pun intended).
Through the first six games of the year, LSU blew through their opponents and did not allow a single touchdown.
Then, on Halloween night, the Tigers faced off against Ole Miss. Both teams were undefeated and sported talented rosters.
By the fourth quarter, the score was just 3-0 in favor of the Rebels.
With the Tiger faithful squirming in their seats, Ole Miss punter Jake Gibbs kicked the ball from the Rebels 42-yard line.
Cannon waited for the kick and the ball arched through the air before impacting the ground several yards later.
As the ball bounced high in the air, Cannon settled under it for the return.
“The ball takes a bounce, and I saw Billy Cannon, he was just kind of eyeing it up and I thought, “No, Billy! No, no, no,” LSU coach Paul Dietzel said years later.
Because of the crowd noise, Cannon couldn’t hear his coach and would have ignored him anyway.
Instead, he fielded the ball and proceeded to make his way through a gaggle of missed tackles.
“He took off and after he cleared about three or four people, it changed from no, no, no to go, go, go,” Dietzel said.
“I don’t care if I had been on the goal line, with the run I’d made the time before, I was going to try to take it back,” Cannon said.
As the home crowd held their collective breaths, Cannon finally cleared the would-be Rebel tacklers and shot into the clear.
Billy Cannon is the only player in @LSUfootball history to win the Heisman Trophy.
60 years ago today, he had his Heisman moment on Halloween night. pic.twitter.com/m3e1f2I25R
— SEC Network (@SECNetwork) October 31, 2019
He then raced the rest of the way into the end zone for an 89-yard touchdown return.
However, the game wasn’t over yet.
Ole Miss marched the ball downfield and got to the Tigers’ one-yard line.
On fourth down, Cannon (now playing in the secondary) assisted with teammate Warren Rabb for a game-saving tackle with 18 seconds left.
The result was a 7-3 victory for 7-0 LSU.
As the teams left the field, Cannon collapsed from exhaustion when he reached the players tunnel.
The following week, the Tigers were upset by Tennessee before winning their final two games.
60 years ago today – “The Stop” – #13 Vols upset #1 ranked and defending national champion LSU 14-13 on Shields-Watkins Field. Wayne Grubb, Charley Severance and Bill Majors stop future Heisman Trophy winner Billy Cannon on 2 pt conversion pic.twitter.com/kvKINLkzHk
— Glenn Thackston (@GThackston) November 8, 2019
Then, LSU played Ole Miss again in the Sugar Bowl.
This time, the Rebels got the last laugh as they blanked their rival 21-0.
Despite the disappointing loss to end his collegiate career, Cannon was rewarded for his season (598 rushing yards, five rushing touchdowns) and his heroics by being the overwhelming vote getter for the Heisman Trophy.
He received the award from Vice President Richard Nixon who praised Cannon by saying he was, “Not an ordinary Cannon, but an atomic Cannon—the ultimate weapon in the arsenal of Paul Dietzel.”
— LSU Football (@LSUfootball) February 15, 2016
In addition to the Heisman, Cannon was a repeat winner of nearly every award he received as a junior.
He also repeated as a consensus All-American and player of the year.
Shortly after the 1959 season, LSU retired Cannon’s number 20 jersey.
Signed by Two Pro Leagues
Before Cannon’s senior season had concluded, he signed a contract with the LA Rams to play in the NFL, (his signing is an act unthinkable in today’s pro game).
Then, Cannon raised eyebrows when he signed a second contract with the Houston Oilers of the new American Football League shortly after the Sugar Bowl.
That prompted the Rams to sue Cannon, stating that he could not sign with two teams.
Surprisingly, District Court Judge William Lindberg ruled against the Rams stating that the contracts were void and that LA took advantage of a person who was “exceptionally naïve, a provincial lad untutored and unwise in the ways of the business world.”
With Judge Lindberg’s ruling, Cannon was now a Houston Oiler.
His contract with Houston made Cannon pro football’s first $100,000 man.
Cannon Finds Success in Houston
The Houston Oilers were one of the franchises in the brand new AFL in 1960.
Led by coach Lou Rymkus, Houston assembled a roster that included regional hero Cannon, fullback Charlie Tolar, receivers Charlie Hennigan and Bill Groman, and quarterback George Blanda.
In 1960, Cannon led the Oilers with 644 yards, one rushing touchdown, and 15 receptions for five more scores.
Houston would finish the season 10-4 and play in the inaugural AFL Championship against the LA Chargers.
During the game, Cannon caught an 88-yard touchdown pass from Blanda to help the Oilers win 24-16.
He was then named the contest’s MVP.
The following season, Houston began the year 1-3-1 which led to Rymkus’ firing.
Immediately, the franchise reversed their course and won the rest of their games including a repeat of the AFL Championship game against the Chargers.
Houston Oilers owner Bud Adams and Billy Cannon after the team won the AFL Title in 1961. pic.twitter.com/ffvuAzXrN2
— SportsPaper (@SportsPaperInfo) May 21, 2018
(Cannon was once again the game’s MVP after scoring the only touchdown in the 10-3 victory).
In a game against the New York Titans during the ‘61 season, Cannon set a professional football record by gaining 373 all-purpose yards and scoring five touchdowns.
He also rushed for 216 yards during the game to set another AFL record.
That year, Cannon led the AFL in rushing yards with 948 (a career-high), yards per carry average with 4.7, and yards per game with 67.7.
He also led the league in all-purpose yards.
After the season, Cannon was named a first-team All-AFL member and an AFL All-Star.
Cannon struggled with injuries for the next two years, although he would still finish second on the Oilers in scoring in 1962 with 13 touchdowns.
Houston would return to the AFL Championship again in 1962 but lose in the first double-overtime game in pro football history to the Dallas Texans 20-17.
— Ken Gelman (@kengfunk) April 8, 2019
Then after injuries limited Cannon to just 45 rushing yards in 1963, he asked Oilers management for a trade and the team granted his wish.
“I left the team with good feelings and a lot of good friends. It was just time to go,” said Cannon years later.
Cannon becomes a Raider
In 1964, Cannon found himself as a member of the Oakland Raiders football team.
Second-year head coach Al Davis loved Cannon’s speed and placed him at fullback.
Cannon caught the ball well out of the backfield (37 catches, 454 yards, five touchdowns) and he also did well from the backfield.
That year, he rushed for 338 yards and three scores for the 5-7-2 Raiders.
The following year, Davis made an odd decision and moved Cannon to tight end.
— Seb 🏈⚾️🏒🏀⚽️🇺🇦 (@CJ28MTL) November 4, 2017
He was little used and caught only seven passes for 127 yards in 1965.
In 1966, Davis became the AFL commissioner for a year and John Rauch took over as the coach.
Cannon saw a slight uptick in production and ended the year with 14 receptions for 436 yards and two scores.
The Raiders Reach Super Bowl II
1967 was a great season for both Oakland and Cannon.
As the Raiders sprinted to a 13-1 record, Cannon caught 32 passes for 629 yards and 10 touchdowns.
His yardage and touchdown totals led all AFL tight ends that year.
He would then be voted to the first-team All-AFL squad.
— Ken Gelman (@kengfunk) July 11, 2017
Oakland would crush Cannon’s former team, the Oilers, in the AFL Championship game 40-7.
Then, it was on to Super Bowl II to face the NFL’s Green Bay Packers.
During the fourth quarter, Cannon was open on a pass play and Raiders quarterback Daryle Lamonica threw the ball his way.
Inexplicably, he dropped the ball on his way to a sure touchdown. Cannon would later call the play, “the clumsiest drop of my career.”
Things didn’t go right for many of the Raiders players that day as the Packers ran away with the game in a 33-14 victory.
1968 & 1969
The following season, Cannon caught 23 passes for 360 yards and six touchdowns. He was named second-team All-AFL.
Meanwhile, Oakland returned to the playoffs after a 12-2 regular season.
They defeated Kansas City in the Divisional playoff before losing to the New York Jets 27-23 in the AFL Championship Game.
In 1968 AFL Championship Game, Raiders RB/TE Billy Cannon had a "bonus" Raiders logo on his helmet! (h/t Scott M.X. Turner) pic.twitter.com/IS289S4FeN
— Paul Lukas (@UniWatch) May 13, 2020
In 1969, new head coach John Madden used Cannon as more of a decoy which led to 21 receptions for 262 yards and only two touchdowns.
Regardless of his low totals, Cannon was voted to his second AFL All-Star team that year.
During the 1970 preseason, the Raiders released Cannon.
A Brief Stop with Kansas City then Retirement
After leaving Oakland, Cannon was about to begin post-graduate work in orthodontics at Loyola University in Chicago.
He received a phone call from Kansas City head coach Hank Stram to play for him and Cannon was happy to return.
During the 1970 season, he played in six games and had six rushing yards and seven receptions for 125 yards and two scores.
Before the season ended, Cannon sustained an injury and chose that moment to retire from football.
In his 11-year career, Cannon had 2,455 yards rushing, 3,656 receiving yards, and 64 touchdowns on offense.
He also threw one touchdown pass and returned a kickoff for a touchdown.
Cannon currently holds the NFL record for the most yards from scrimmage in a non-overtime game (the New York Titans game in 1961).
He also has the distinction of being tied with four other players for the most touchdown receptions by a running back in a season (nine in 1961).
In his career, Cannon was a three-time AFL champion, a two-time AFL Championship Game MVP, a two-time AFL All-Star, two-time first-team All-AFL, two-time second-team All-AFL, and AFL rushing champion in 1961.
Controversy and Arrest in Retirement
Not long after retiring from football, Cannon opened a dental practice in the Baton Rouge area.
For several years, people came from far and wide to have Cannon work on their teeth just so they could say they met him.
“I’m very happy, very contented, very Middle American,” Cannon said at the time, adding that he was enjoying orthodontics because he was “making pretty little girls prettier.”
Then, in 1983, Louisiana and the sports world learned that their favorite son was tarnished.
That summer the story broke that Cannon was part of a large counterfeiting ring that made and circulated more than $6 million in $100 dollar bills.
When confronted, Cannon readily admitted his role and he was named the ringleader of the operation.
At the time, Cannon’s operation was the seventh-largest counterfeiting scheme in U.S. history.
He was sentenced to five years and the fall from grace was swift.
Billy Cannon won a Heisman, got arrested for counterfeiting, and was a prison dentist. That’s a full life. RIP.
— Bunkie Perkins (@BunkiePerkins) May 20, 2018
The College Football Hall of Fame had elected Cannon in ‘83 only to rescind the honor after learning of his involvement in the counterfeiting ring.
Time Magazine ran a story of his downfall calling Cannon a “bogus hero.”
CBS Evening News covered his walk into jail live while the reporter spoke in ominous tones.
“LSU faithful say they will fix not on this lonely walk but on those joyous autumn runs when they think of him. This, they say, is the real Billy Cannon. The one they want to hold in their memory.”
Cannon would serve only two and a half years of his prison sentence and was released early due to good behavior.
Although he was a free man, Cannon spent the next several years dodging bill collectors and others he owed money to.
Finally, in 1995, the Louisiana State Penitentiary hired him to be their dentist.
When he arrived for his new job, Cannon found the prison dental clinic in disrepair.
He quickly set about reorganizing the operation and the inmates came to love the man they called “Legend.”
“The man cares,” Warden Burl Cain said years later. “The inmates love him, and because they love him, he cares more and won’t dare let ’em down. I put him over the whole hospital,” Cain continued. “Look, he’s a leader of men. He got that whole thing organized like a team.”
Death & Legacy
Cannon continued to thrive while working at Angola Prison.
In 2003, he suffered a stroke, quickly recovered, and was back to work just a few days later, fully recovered.
Five years later, the College Football Hall of Fame elected Cannon for a second time and formally inducted him in December of 2008.
(He had been inducted into the LSU Hall of Fame in 1975 and the Louisiana Hall of Fame in 1976).
Then, on May 20, 2018, Cannon died in his sleep at his home in St. Francisville, Louisiana.
He was 80 years old.
Despite his legal troubles, LSU fans and the state of Louisiana have forgiven Cannon.
Four months after his passing, a statue honoring Cannon was erected near Tiger Stadium.
Just spent a quiet moment with Billy Cannon’s statue outside of Tiger Stadium.
— M. Quinlan Duhon (@LSUQuinlanDuhon) December 14, 2019
Also, his fabled Halloween night run against Ole Miss in 1959 is still played before Tigers home games.
Without a doubt, Cannon is forever immortalized as an icon of LSU and Louisiana.