2012 LEGACY AWARD WINNER BILLY CANNON
Billy Cannon: The 1959 Heisman Trophy Winner
I grew up in Monroe, Louisiana back in the years known as the fabulous 50’s. It is during that time in Louisiana that a young man burst onto the athletic scene like none had ever witnessed. He was Billy Cannon. To describe him as legend would be an understatement, as hero for sure. Tough of course, speed indeed, but more than anything else he was a football player. He was mysterious from where we were because we never got to see him, yet worshiped in other places because they did. Billy Cannon December 1959
Today’s technology offers a bird’s eye view of athletes at anytime, anywhere. However, back then we had to look at the radio and prescribe in our minds what we were not able to see. Think of Ares, Zeus and Apollo. Now think of Billy Cannon, because in 1959 he was like a Greek God in Louisiana, royal, majestic, powerful. The state was divided during those times but there was no separation about the prowess of Billy Cannon. Wherever you stood in life at that time no one could deny, he was the greatest player in the history of the State of Louisiana.
I can recall other athletes from Louisiana, great ones. But all names together couldn’t climb the popularity mountain created by Billy Cannon. If you didn’t know him you wanted to. If you didn’t see him you wished you had. If you didn’t love him you had to respect him.
In Louisiana we loved him, at 6’ 1”, 215 pounds he ran the 100 yard dash in 9.5 seconds, with cuts! As a junior in 1958, Billy Cannon led LSU to the National Championship defeating Clemson with a pass to the end zone for the games only score. Add to that the fact that he also doubled as a defensive player. That year he was named All-American. However, that quickly became old news. A year passed and trick or treat, it was 1959.
Halloween was eerie that year and I will never forget that night. I was 11 years old and we had just returned from collecting our bags of candy. As we sat on the back porch we heard the radio blasting inside. The state had been preparing for a certain football game for more than a year. Now it was here... the #1 LSU Tigers vs. #3 Old Miss Rebels. It was billed “the war for the south”, but I remembered thinking it was the most boring game ever. LSU was getting stuffed on every series by the Rebs and as unbelievable as it may seem to today’s games Mississippi kept punting on “first” down, yes, first down! This was a confusing strategy to all of us at the time. They would stuff LSU, force a punt, get the ball, then punt it right back to them on 1st down. Mississippi led 3-0 into the 4th quarter and they knew LSU could not penetrate their supreme defense. So they kept punting the ball back to them. Then, all of a sudden legend happened and a Greek tale of Odyssey was scripted into the hearts and minds of Louisiana lovers forever more.
If you heard it, you never forgot where you were that Halloween night. If you didn’t, when you finally did you wanted to hear it all over again. It was simply known as the run and with it Billy Cannon won everything... All- American again, college player of the year, top ten ranking, this time the prestigious Heisman Trophy and 2 tickets to the pros. For the next 50 years his number 20 would stand as the only LSU jersey ever retired. That night you could see him on the radio and you could hear him in your heart... “89 yards on the return, 7-3 LSU with 10 minutes to go. Ole Miss drives to the two yard line, 4th down, seconds to go, an off tackle smash and Bill Cannon makes the hit”. Like I wrote earlier he played defense also. When asked what is legend, what do you say? Well, that answer was easy if you were in Louisiana in 1959. You simply say Billy Cannon. However, in the years that followed, if asked to define Billy Cannon the man, then that answer becomes a little bit harder.
He was born William Abb Cannon in Philadelphia, Mississippi on August 2, 1937. In the middle of the World War II era his father found work in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and the family settled in. While his dad found work there, Billy found Istrouma High School where a football legend was created. It was 1952 and Billy was introduced to weight training. A no no back in those days, yet a few special things came out of it for him, like speed, power and endurance. He was a star athlete in football and track, running 9.5 in the 100 yard dash and scoring 39 touchdowns his senior year alone. He was high school All-American, All-State, State Champion and he threw the 16 pound shot putt 54 feet.
He hit the campus of LSU in 1956 and by1959 he was the top player in the country. In 1960 he was drafted #1 by both football leagues; the Houston Oilers of the upstart AFL and the legendary Los Angeles Rams in the NFL. Following an intense legal battle it was ruled Houston had the rights. He played four years with the Oilers leading the league in rushing in 1961. He was later traded in 1964 to the Oakland Raiders where Al Davis moved him to tight end. No sweat, in 1967 he made all league at that position too.
In his career he gained 2,465 yards rushing, 3,656 receiving and 1,882 on returns. When he was done in the pros he had amassed a total of 8,003 yards and 63 touchdowns. He played in 6 AFC Championship games winning 3 of them, 2 with Houston and 1 with the Raiders. He is one of only 20 players to play all ten years of the AFL’s existence. To this day he is still in the record books of the Houston Oilers (Tennessee Titans) for most points in a game (30) and the most TD’s in a game (5). A big time football player, Cannon made it large averaging around $100,000.00 per year, a goldmine back then. What a career but then life happened.
He was ready when football ended becoming an Orthodontist. He earned a DDS degree from the University of Tennessee and multiple degrees from the University of Loyola of Chicago. Yet for all his preparation and a successful practice, by 1983 he was in financial difficulties. That year he was involved in a counterfeiting scheme and was convicted and sent to prison where he spent 2 1⁄2 years of a 5 year sentence.
Stripped of his football hall of fame status, with doubts all around, he remade his life with a constitution that allowed him to be nominated and selected again. Perhaps the only college football hall of famer that has ever been voted in twice. It was a struggle but he regained his dentist license and worked to rebuild his practice.
In 1995, no longer the All-American with the movie star looks, there stood another Billy Cannon, being hired as the dentist at the Louisiana State Penitentiary. The place was in shambles as it related to dentistry and medical care in general. But like running through tackles in 1959 he ran through the chaos at the prison and reorganized the program with great success. So much so that the warden placed Billy in charge of the entire medical system. Eighteen years later that reorganization is still working. He’s still the resident dentist. You would think after 18 years a man with the title doctor might sometime be referred to in short as doc... no no, not in Louisiana. Even the inmates know, so when they greet him they simply call him “Legend."
Today his horses gather most of his attention and while he’s watching the horses, his wife Dot of 50 years plus is watching out for him. She’s the sugar coated fireball that didn’t get up in the middle of the movie and leave when it wasn’t so good. Nope, she’s sticking around to see the ending because so far it has been a cinematic marvel. As childhood sweethearts, they got together around the same time (1954-55) that a young war hero name Audie Murphy was making a war movie about his life. Since then Billy Cannon has been all-state, All-American, hall of famer, all–pro, national champion and professional champion. I’m told he has survived 4 heart by- pass surgeries and a bout with cancer, and as this writing was in progress, you now can add stroke to the list. He’s heard the cheers and listened to the jeers. He’s played to as high as 85,000 in a jam packed stadium and as far down as one lone inmate in a dentist chair. He’s been a hero and a disappointment, a healer and a savior. And after it all, he too has been saved. He loves his kids, loves his horses and has never seen life without his beloved Dot.
Yes, Audie Murphy, an honored American war veteran, made a movie in 1955 about going to war, fighting that war and surviving it. The name of the movie was “To Hell and Back”. Billy Cannon has made that journey also... he’s been there, done that. His life now is horses. It has been said that horses can’t be known they can only be watched with awe. They don’t have pasts or futures, they only have the run. In Billy’s own words, he said, “I know what it is to be the horse”.