Engster: Billy Cannon’s Legendary Run Comes to an End

Editor’s note: In 2010, Tiger Rag selected the 150 most influential figures in LSU sports history. Billy Cannon, who passed away Saturday, ranked No. 1. This is the column from that edition of Tiger Rag. 

He was immortalized on his 89-yard gallop to beat Ole Miss on Halloween of 1959, and no person in LSU lore has displayed as many layers of complexity as William Abb “Billy” Cannon.

The dulcet tones of J.C. Politz reverberated from the broadcast booth through the bowels of Tiger Stadium and into the hearts of LSU fans. “Billy Cannon, Great All American,” cheered Politz as Cannon glided through the Ole Miss defense with a pulverizing blend of power and speed and cruised through the north end zone more than five decades ago.

Cannon’s athletic prowess was legendary, and he blossomed under the tutelage of strength and conditioning visionary Alvin Roy.  A track and field mentor remarked that the 6’1, 215-pound Cannon could have dropped 15 pounds and captured Olympic gold in 1960 in the 100-meter dash or gained 15 pounds and won a gold medal in the shot put.

No. 20 has been worn only once by anyone other than Cannon on the field at Death Valley since 1959. It was actor Dennis Quaid, who played the Grey Ghost in “Everybody’s All American,” filmed in 1987. Quaid’s portrayal of Gavin Grey gave Cannon the same kind of big screen persona as Huey Long, who was depicted as Willie Stark in “All the King’s Men.”

Billy Cannon was born in Philadelphia, Mississippi on Aug. 2, 1937 and moved to Louisiana when his father, Harvey, found work in Baton Rouge during WWII. At Istrouma High School, he scored 39 touchdowns and led his team to a state championship in 1955.

Cannon was the premier player on the 1958 National Champions. He collected the Heisman Trophy a year later at the Downtown Athletic Club in New York City from Vice President Richard Nixon.

Billy originally signed professionally with the Los Angeles Rams, but the pact with Rams’ General Manager Pete Rozelle was voided when a judge ruled that Rozelle had taken advantage of an unsophisticated country boy.

Cannon’s wisdom was heightened when he inked a record contract with the fledgling Houston Oilers of the American Football League. Cannon scored an 88-yard touchdown in the first AFL Championship, a 24-16 victory over the Los Angeles Chargers. He scored the only touchdown in the Oilers’ triumph over the San Diego Chargers in the second-ever AFL Championship Game in 1961 and led the league in rushing.

In ten professional seasons, Cannon amassed a combined total of 8,049 yards and 64 touchdowns and played in six AFL Championship Games, winning twice with the Oilers and once with the Oakland Raiders.

He retired to Baton Rouge as an orthodontist and made news every Oct. 31 when his Halloween run was replayed incessantly on local stations. Then in 1983, a side of Billy Cannon was revealed that stunned coaches, teammates, friends and fans, who had followed his life for a quarter century.

Cannon was revealed as the mastermind of a counterfeiting operation in which he printed $5 million in U.S. 100-dollar bills that he stored in ice chests and buried in the backyard of a house he owned. He pleaded guilty to counterfeiting charges without a trial and spent three years in federal prison.

In 1995, Cannon was hired at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. He remains the resident dentist at the nation’s largest maximum security prison where inmates refer to him as “Legend.”

Cannon has apologized for his criminal past and is again treated with reverence at the Ole War Skule where he was named LSU Alumnus of the Year in 2010.  Billy, ironically, fell three hours short of graduating from LSU and received dental degrees from the University of Tennessee and Loyola of Chicago. This leaves Skipper Heard as the only member of this Top Ten list to obtain a diploma from LSU.

Throughout the nation, Cannon and “the run” are synonymous with LSU football. He is the rare man to evolve from legendary hero to tragic figure to reconciliation with the victims he betrayed.

When Bo Rein was questioned why he sought the LSU coaching job in 1979, he mentioned the broadcast of Cannon’s run as the most memorable sporting event he had heard on radio. “The hair on the back of my neck was standing,” Rein smiled as he recalled listening to Cannon’s run as a 14-year-old in Ohio.

Billy Cannon was ranked first by only one member (Bud Johnson) of the selection committee for this list, but no panelist listed Cannon lower than fourth.  He symbolizes the mystique of LSU and night football as the leading man in the most heralded play in the storied past of Tiger Stadium.

Cannon faded from grace along the way from his field of glory, but his path to redemption has been remarkable.  Over 50 years since his departure, Cannon retains his place as the most vivid star in the LSU constellation.

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