Death did his best to bring down Billy Cannon five years ago, but – as many would-be tacklers learned the hard way in Cannon’s long and storied football career – he couldn’t bring him down on the first try.
Burl Cain was the warden at Angola in 2013 when Cannon, the 1959 Heisman Trophy winner who passed away in his home Sunday, May 20 at the age of 80, suffered a stroke. Cannon, then the dentist at Angola, needed to be rushed to the hospital, but budgetary shortfalls had left Angola’s ambulances in substandard condition. Dr. Randy Lavespeare promised to send Cannon in the best ambulance available, but that wouldn’t do for Cain.
“I said, put him in the best one you have, and then get another ambulance to follow that ambulance, because I can’t afford for Dr. Cannon to die on the side of the road,” Cain laughed.
It took two ambulances to escort a legend of Cannon’s caliber, and it took 80 years for his extraordinary life to run its course. Hundreds gathered at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center on Wednesday to honor Cannon’s life, from family and friends dressed in mourner’s black to adoring fans dressed in purple and gold.
Joining Cain to speak were a number of friends and admirers, including his teammate on the 1958 National Championship team, quarterback Warren Rabb. Both were Baton Rouge natives – Cannon a star at Istrouma in North Baton Rouge, Rabb at Baton Rouge High in mid-city – before teaming up to win LSU’s first national title and its only perfect team.
“Played against Billy for four years,” Rabb recalled. “Played with him for four years. I can tell you this: it was a lot better to play with him than against.”
Another teammate, Scooter Purvis, shared stories from their time at LSU. Purvis featured on the “Go Team” of the ’58 title winners, which spelled the “White Team” – LSU’s best 11 players who played both ways, including Cannon, a running back and safety – on offense.
“There was an advantage to playing behind a man that big,” Purvis joked. “When Billy came off the field and I came on, by the time the other team finished laughing, I’d scored two touchdowns.”
After starring at LSU, Cannon played professionally before opening an orthodontic practice in Baton Rouge. A counterfeiting scheme landed him in prison in 1983, where he would serve two-and-a-half years before release in 1986. In 1995, he would return to Angola, this time as the prison’s dentist, forging a deep bond with the inmates, all of whom referred to Cannon as ‘Doc.’
That love manifested itself to the very end. Cannon was laid to rest in a casket hand-carved and paid for by Angola inmates.
“Dr. Cannon was loved by staff and the inmates,” Angola warden Darrel Vannoy said. “The offenders there respected him to the highest, and a testament to that would be this coffin they built for him. They also did something extra…The leaders paid for the material to buy that coffin. That’s never been done in my career that I know of. That’s how much love and respect they have for that man.”
Inmates weren’t the only ones who idolized Cannon. Cain joked he saw a steady uptick in visitors to the prison, who took guided tours under the guise of curiosity, simply to set their eyes on the legendary Tiger prowling the dental offices on campus.
LSU football coach Ed Orgeron also offered remarks, praising Cannon and his teammates for the standard they set in the 1958 championship season and for Cannon’s dogged determination en route to the 1959 Heisman Trophy, best depicted by his famous 89-yard punt return against Ole Miss on October 31, 1959.
“The grit and spirit you showed in that historic run on Halloween night will forever live in every coach and player at LSU,” Orgeron said.
The final comments went to Charles deGravelles, who authored Cannon’s 2013 book, “Billy Cannon: A Long, Long Run.” A minister by trade, deGravelles said he spent 130 hours with Cannon during the writing process, tracing his life from his birth in a Mississippi town so remote that when the doctor from nearby Philadelphia arrived for the berth, Cannon was three days old, to the itinerant childhood days that brought the Cannon family through Memphis, New Albany, Ind., Birmingham, and, finally, Baton Rouge, and finally to his well-chronicled career and post-playing days.
“He was an amazing athlete, but he was also a great father, grandfather, and a friend,” deGravelles said. “It’s hard to tally up a life like this…He is making it to the pearly gates, whatever the route. There is only one Billy Cannon, and I will miss him.”