MULE’: Archie-Who says Cannon is a Hall of Famer
Ole Miss’ Archie Manning sold on Billy Cannon as a hall of famer
Among a clutch of ironies surrounding Billy Cannon’s restoration to the College Football Hall of Fame, it’s hard to get past this one.
Archie Manning once recalled a vivid moment of his childhood: laying on his bed in the dark, listening to the radio broadcast of the 1959 LSU-Ole Miss football game.
He heard the play-by-play description of how his home state – and favorite – team, Ole Miss, was undone in its quest for an undefeated season. Billy Cannon had just run back his famed 89-yard punt return to give the No. 1-ranked Tigers their only points of the night, then helped save the victory over the No. 3-ranked Rebels with an assisted tackle at the LSU 1 in the fading seconds.
Tears flowed down his 10-year-old cheeks.
“Broke my heart,” Manning recalled with feeling, even decades later.
Now, almost a half century later, after a sterling playing career of his own, one in which as an Ole Miss quarterback he inflicted a couple of stinging defeats of his own to LSU, Manning is the chairman of the National Football Foundation and College Football Hall of Fame – which last week reelected Cannon to his place among the game’s greats.
“He deserves it,” Manning said. “Billy Cannon was one of the all-time best, an athlete who set the standard for those who came after him.”
This is the second time Cannon, the only Tiger football player to have his jersey retired, has been elected to the august Hall. Twenty-five years ago he was the headliner in the balloting. But, after his conviction for his involvement in a counterfeiting ring, for which he served two-and-a-half years in a federal penitentiary, Cannon’s entry was rescinded.
Citizenship, not just athletic accomplishment, is a major part of the criterion voters are expected to weigh in the evaluation of a candidate.
Repentance and community service apparently influenced voters in Cannon’s favor. An orthodontist, Cannon has run the dental clinic for the prisoners at Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola for the last 10 years, apparently to the great appreciation of the incarcerated and their administrators.
In a 2003 New York Times story, written by LSU graduate Jere Longman, Angola warden Burl Cain said Cannon had overhauled the clinic, upgraded the salaries of the support staff, and, to lend to their aid, brought in experienced dentists.
“Prisoners are chronic complainers, but they don’t complain about the dental part of prison,” Cain said in the article. “Dr. Cannon has leadership skills. He’s compassionate. He defuses tension. I gave him free reign, and said, ‘If it’s broke, fix it.’
“One of the best hires I ever made.”
That story, and a look into Cannon’s public service by the National Football Foundation, seems to have played a part in his reelection. Associate athletic director Herb Vincent said LSU has been pushing for Cannon for several years, and that New York Times story was circulated among the voters to make the point of his worthiness. Manning said the reports the National Football Foundation received on Cannon’s current life was sterling.
As an athlete, there is no doubt Cannon belonged with the titans of the sport. An outstanding combination of speed and strength, Cannon, a halfback, foreshadowed such multifaceted, multidimensional runners as Herschel Walker and Bo Jackson – both, along with Manning, already in the Hall of Fame.
His accomplishments are spread on a much wider spectrum than the rest of the Hall of Fame’s Class of 2008. Of the 13 players elected, Cannon is the only Heisman Trophy recipient; one of three players who finished in the top three Heisman balloting twice; one of three unanimous first- team All-Americans; the only Walter Camp Player of the Year; one of two members of national championship teams; and one of six first-round NFL Draft choices.
And Cannon’s induction will fill a glaring gap. Not only does he clearly belong, but his inclusion will also mean that each of the first 50 Heisman recipients, from 1935 through 1984, will now have a place in college football’s hallowed Hall.
Marty Mule’ can be reached at MJM981@Bellsouth.net.