Photo courtesy of LSU Athletics.
Fighting Tiger Billy Cannon runs the ball down the field.
There are certain iconic dates—first man on the moon, Kennedy assassination, MLK Dream speech, 9-11—engraved forever on our consciousnesses, so that we recall exactly where we were and what we were doing at the time. For Louisiana football fans, when autumn frosts the pumpkins and youngsters yearn for trick-or-treat sweets, that iconic date is Halloween 1959 when LSU played Ole Miss in Death Valley. Then-Tiger coach Paul Dietzel has since joked that, even though the stadium in Baton Rouge was considerably smaller than it is now, at least a million rabid fans swore they saw the game in person.
It was the fourth quarter, and LSU, 1958 National Champion, trailed third-ranked Ole Miss, 3-0. LSU halfback Billy Cannon, hometown hero out of Istrouma High, hauled in a punt on the 11-yard line. An excellent all-around athlete, Cannon was a big ol’ boy of 6’1” and 210 pounds who could do it all—run, pass, catch, punt, kick and block, his track-star speed combining with his big size to create a standout on both offense and defense. To cap off the 1958 season, in the 7-0 Sugar Bowl, he had been responsible for all of the points scored against Clemson, throwing the touchdown pass and then kicking the PAT.
As the 1959 Halloween night crowd roared in Tiger Stadium, Billy Cannon broke seven tackles on his famous eighty-nine-yard run that won the game for LSU; and his last-minute goal-line defense later saved the victory when he and Warren Rabb held the Rebels at fourth and inches. He was considered the best running back in the entire country, garnering every award given—three-year letterman, all-SEC, two-time All-American, AP and UPI Player of the Year, and Football Hall of Fame. Although he considered his junior year his best—when the ‘58 Tigers were 11-0 and he played in all eleven games—in his senior season he led the Tigers in rushing with nearly six hundred yards and five rushing touchdowns, caught eleven passes, punted forty-four times for an average of forty yards per punt, returned eight kickoffs, and on defense returned four interceptions.
Cannon was awarded the 1959 Heisman Trophy, an award he insists is shared with that entire, incredible National Championship team, including the infamous Chinese Bandits defense. He went on to a successful nine-year career in the pros, with the Houston Oilers, Oakland Raiders, and Kansas City Chiefs. During his professional career, he was credited with sixty-four touchdowns, gained over eight thousand yards (rushing, receiving, and returning), held the record for most touchdowns scored in one game (five), and played in six AFL Championship games.
When he retired from the gridiron in 1970, he began a career as an orthodontist, earning a DDS from the University of Tennessee and doing advanced studies at Loyola University Chicago. In the 1990s Dr. William Abb Cannon was hired at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, where he has reorganized the entire dental program and now, in his mid-seventies, takes pleasure in his work, his expanding family, and his peaceful country lifestyle.
He is often introduced at Saints’ games and other sporting events; and, according to longtime sportswriter Peter Finney of New Orleans, who has encountered his fair share of athletes over the course of his career, “He handles himself well and is a great representative of the university.” Having covered local sports for over sixty years, Finney stands a Louisiana legend in his own right (he was even inducted into the Saints Hall of Fame); not many can say they witnessed LSU’s 1958 National Championship, and fewer can boast such a close vantage point.
When Dr. Cannon and his teammates from the ‘50’s Fighting Tigers got together in Mississippi to celebrate the passage of half a century since the epic iconic game Coach Dietzel called one of the most exciting finishes in football, The Times-Picayune sent an interviewer to record a few thoughts from “the most famous player in LSU history.” Cannon laughed that “not one of the old guys” thought back then that they’d be receiving accolades all these years later. “I made the run,” he said, “but I got a lot of help.” To Finney, the iconic run was made even more fantastic with the last fifty yards being right along the Ole Miss sideline, “a great, great moment.” But, Finney added, without the great goal-line stand that kept Ole Miss from scoring again, Cannon’s famous run might have been just a footnote in history.
When the Times-Picayune not long ago ran polls asking fans to vote for LSU’s top fifty football players since 1940, Billy Cannon won by a landslide as the school’s all-time best, in a field that included four College Hall of Famers, three Pro Hall of Famers, and thirty-two first-team All-Americans. And yet this legendary LSU running back and his teammates, “the old guys” half a century later, marvel that they are still considered heroes, their football records the stuff of myths and legends.
And at Angola, the inmates call him Legend.