Billy Cannon was born in 1937 as America braced itself for World War II and scraped out of the Great Depression. Vietnam, Civil Rights and political assassinations were coming soon to the United States as the country had its position as the world’s superpower challenged at home and abroad.
Kids arriving in 1937 lived a much different existence than those born in 1957 or 1987. Billy Cannon, who was a native of Philadelphia in rural Mississippi, was an American youth in Baton Rouge after WWII. Some other prominent U.S. citizens born in 1937 include Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, Bill Cosby, Jack Nicholson, Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, Jane Fonda and Hunter Thompson.
All talented. All famous. All controversial. Like the others, Cannon had his ups and downs, dramatic peaks and valleys. LSU’s only Heisman Trophy winner died on May 20. Billy Cannon was 80 years old. He learned a lot and taught the rest of us many life lessons in his eight decades as the greatest athletic force of nature produced in Baton Rouge, the town he put on the map in 1958. His town.
The Louisiana Capital was a sleepy oil city in 1958. Billy Cannon brought national attention to TigerTown when he burst on the scene as college football’s best player on Paul Dietzel’s national champions. The lad from Istrouma High finished third in the Heisman balloting in 1958 and received the award a year later from Vice President Richard Nixon as LSU missed a two-point conversion at Tennessee that would have resulted in a second straight national title.
Cannon insisted to his death that he had pierced the goal line and should have been credited with two points in what would have been a 15-14 LSU victory at Knoxville. Instead, the Tigers lost a 19-game winning streak and missed an opportunity to repeat as kings of NCAA football. In those years, the championship was awarded before bowl games, so the Bengals were a blown call away from an encore of 1958.
Cannon was the first American football icon to utilize the power of weightlifting, At 6-foot-1, 207 pounds, he could bench press double his body weight, run a 9.4 100-yard dash and throw the shot put 55 feet. He was one of the world’s fastest and strongest men in one body. The numbers Cannon produced in 1958 would cause NFL scouts of today to salivate.
The professional career of No. 20 lasted eleven years with a trio of AFL Championships, two with Houston and one with Oakland. Cannon holds the NFL-AFL record for most yards from scrimmage for a running back in one game, 330 yards in 1961 as Houston beat the New York Titans 48-21 at the Polo Grounds on Dec. 10. Cannon scored five touchdowns, running for 216 yards and catching passes for another 114 yards.
When Al Davis of the Oakland Raiders converted Cannon to tight end in 1967, he caught ten touchdown passes and averaged 20 yards per reception. Cannon ranks as one of the most underrated athletes of all time based on his versatility. In addition to his offensive heroics at LSU, he was the defensive back of the decade in the SEC with seven interceptions in a day when teams were passing about ten times a game.
Cannon is a reminder of why it is a good idea to require athletes to play on the both sides of the ball. It is embarrassing and dangerous long-term to feature squads with 20 players above 300 pounds and all showing excessive girth as they move a few yards here and few yards there.
These men lack the speed and stamina to play both ways. It’s time for the NCAA to make it mandatory to play offense and defense simultaneously. Obesity is soon to rival concussions as a health impediment in football.
Billy Cannon was a Man in every sense of the word. Not only a spectacular physical specimen, he displayed uncommon integrity when he went down for the count in 1983. Stripped of his reputation, Cannon was revealed to be a counterfeiter. Instead of denying his crime as O.J. Simpson did when he took two lives, Cannon acknowledged his mistake and served three years in federal prison. It is questionable whether a Baton Rouge jury would have convicted him, but Cannon admitted he had participated in a scheme to print $6 million in phony $100 bills.
When asked in 2015 if he suffered any signs of dementia, Cannon deadpanned that the only tell tale sign was, “Occasionally I have an uncontrollable urge to print money.” The orthodontist returned from his federal incarceration in Texas and completed his remarkable comeback by working as the dentist at Angola State Prison for the last 20 years of his life.
At his funeral, Cannon’s teammate Warren Rabb choked back tears as he recalled the kindness from his friend of 66 years, a rascal that some termed a rogue. Rabb noted that Cannon kept his commitments, most notably to his Dot, his wife and partner in life for 60 years and mother to his five children.
There would be no divorces for Billy Cannon. Not from his wife. Not from his city. Not from his university. There were tough patches, but Cannon always returned to the land that he loved and the people who loved him.
President Trump recently pardoned posthumously the heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson. Trump should consider a pardon of Billy Cannon. Nothing will remove his guilty plea and prison term, but Cannon was fully rehabilitated at the time of his death and deserves to be remembered for his greatness on the field and resilience away from the stadium.
The last line of Cannon’s obituary in the New York Times included a quote from LSU’s late Sports Information Director Paul Manasseh. “Billy’s gone through life figuring he could do anything and get away with it, he was above the law,” Manasseh said. “Billy’s basically a good guy, but he does some dumb things. He’s a very complex person. I’m no shrink. Go figure it.”
Manasseh died in 2000 and if he were alive today, he would have cast Cannon in a different light. Cannon deserves to be remembered for No. 20, not the number he wore as an inmate.
Mr. Trump, please pardon Dr. Cannon.