William Abb Cannon was born on August 2, 1937, in, in a retroactive irony, the State of Mississippi, in its town of Philadelphia. During World War II, his father got a defense plant job in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and the family moved there, and Billy has been known as a Louisiana boy ever since.
He was a 3-sport letterman at Istrouma High School, leading the football team to a State Championship, setting a State record for points in a basketball season, and, in track & field, set State records for the 100-yard dash and the shot put.
But in the Summer of 1955, just after turning 18, he already got into his first bit of legal trouble. He and some friends saw some men in the company of prostitutes, and told them to pay up or they'd talk. He was charged with theft, and received a 90-day suspended sentence.
The Universities of Florida and Mississippi wanted him. But Louisiana State University offered him something they didn't: A between-semesters job at a local car dealership. (Under today's rules, this would be an NCAA violation.) And his mother told him he should stay close to home. "Mommy was older and wiser," he said, "and I followed her advice."
In 1957, as a sophomore, he was paired in LSU's backfield with Jim Taylor, who went on to a Hall of Fame career with the Green Bay Packers. He also played in the defensive backfield, and was the team's main punter. Against the University of Alabama, he ran the ball only 8 times, but gained 140 yards and scored a touchdown.
Against Texas Tech, he noticed that the Red Raiders were focusing on Taylor: "They were just wearing Jimy out. Of course, they weren't looking for me." He made them pay by returning the opening kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown, and with 36 yards rushing, 31 yards passing, catching a 59-yard touchdown pass, returning a kickoff for a touchdown, and a 40-yard punting average. LSU won 19-14.
The 1958 season would be LSU's 1st National Championship. The Tigers roared to the Southeastern Conference title, destroyed cross-State rival Tulane 62-0 in New Orleans, and returned to Tulane Stadium on New Year's Day and beat 12th-ranked Clemson 7-0 in the Sugar Bowl. Cannon was responsible for all 7 points, both the touchdown and the extra-point kick. Oddly, the touchdown he produced was not due to his running, but to an option pass, to Mickey Mangham.
Cannon was named Player of the Year by UPI and The Sporting News -- but only finished 3rd in the voting for the Heisman Trophy, behind Army running back Pete Dawkins and Iowa quarterback Randy Duncan. (Iowa was awarded the National Championship by the Football Writers Association of America, but lost to Ohio State and were tied by the Air Force Academy, both at home, so their claim is ridiculous.)
Along with Cannon, most of LSU's defensive starters returned for 1959, and through 6 games, they were 6-0, having allowed just 6 points, on 2 field goals. Then came October 31, 1959, and their annual "Magnolia Bowl" showdown with the University of Mississippi, at Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge. "Ole Miss" was ranked Number 3, and this may have been the biggest game in the SEC's 27-season history to that point.
The Rebels kicked a field goal in the 1st quarter, and led 3-0 with about 10 minutes left in regulation. Then they punted. Cannon was under orders from head coach Paul Dietzel not to run with a kickoff or a punt if it landed inside the 20-yard line. This one landed on the 11th. Cannon caught it, and ran, and Dietzel yelled, "Billy, no, no, no!" Soon, however, he was yelling, "Go, go, go!" Cannon broke 7 tackles, includuing attempts by future Jet linebacker Larry Grantham and future Yankee catcher Jake Gibbs, and ran 89 yards for a touchdown.
Painting of the run, by Mike Roberts.
LSU traditionally wears white at home.
The game wasn't over, though. Ole Miss had one last drive in them, and were on the 1-yard line with 18 seconds left. Cannon and Warren Rabb, who was also the LSU quarterback, combined on a game-saving tackle, and the Tigers were 7-3 winners.
That game is perhaps the most famous regular-season contest in LSU football history, but it may have taken too much out of them. The next week, they lost to the University of Tennessee, 14-13, with the Volunteers stopping Cannon on a 2-point conversion, ending LSU's 19-game winning streak. Then they faced a rare bowl game rematch, and lost to Ole Miss in the Sugar Bowl, 21-0.
Still, Cannon was awarded the Heisman Trophy, with his defense taken into consideration. But, just as Doug Flutie might not have won it 25 years later without that Hail Mary touchdown pass in the rainy Orange Bowl, Cannon might not have won it without his "Halloween Run."
The American Football League had just been founded, and made Cannon the 1st pick in their 1st-ever draft, by the Houston Oilers. The Los Angeles Rams also drafted him. He could have chosen the Hollywood lifestyle, including big endorsements. Instead, he chose the higher bonus and the higher straight salary, and went to Houston.
He justified that by helping the Oilers win the 1960 and 1961 AFL Championships -- still the only time the Oilers/Titans franchise has gone as far as the rules of the time have allowed them to go. They almost made it 3 straight, but lost the 1962 AFL Championship Game to the Dallas Texans in double overtime.
At the Polo Grounds on December 10, 1961, against the New York Titans, forerunners of the Jets, between rushing and receiving, he had 330 yards from scrimmage: 216 rushing and 114 receiving. Although this was in the AFL, after the 1970 merger, the NFL recognized it as a record, and it remains one, 57 years later.
This photo was definitely taken at the Polo Grounds,
and could be from the game in question.
He won another AFL Championship with the 1967 Oakland Raiders, having convinced head coach, general manager and then-part-owner Al Davis to bring in his Houston quarterback, George Blanda. Unfortunately for the Raiders, Cannon dropped a pass in Super Bowl II, and the Raiders lost to the Green Bay Packers. He also played for the Raiders against the Jets twice in 1968, in the game that became known as the Heidi Bowl (in which he scored a touchdown), and in the AFL Championship Game, which the Jets won on the way to their stunning upset win in Super Bowl III.
A bit odd to see him wearing any number other than 20.
He was released by the Raiders after the 1969 season, and had been accepted at Loyola University in Chicago: Like another 1960s sports hero, 1967 American League Cy Young Award winner Jim Lonborg of the Boston Red Sox, he became an orthodontist. But the Kansas City Chiefs gave him one last shot, though an injury after 6 games convinced him that enough was enough. In 11 seasons, he rushed for 2,455 yards, caught 236 passes for 3,656 yards, scored 65 touchdowns and passed for another.
His Number 20 was retired by LSU, and he is a member of the College Football Hall of Fame. Unfortunately, like yet another 1960s sports hero, 1968 AL Most Valuable Player Denny McLain, he got involved in something he shouldn't have, and went to prison. Based on those 2 facts, upon his release, he was given a job as the head dentist for the State penal system, a job he still holds.
Billy returned to Baton Rouge, with his wife Dorothy "Dot" Dupuy, and their 5 children: Terri Cannon Byrd, Gina Cannon McWilliams, Dara Cannon Kelsoe, Billy Cannon Jr., and Bunnie Cannon. He lived to see 8 grandchildren and 8 great-grandchildren.
Billy Cannon Jr. also became a prominent athlete, attending Baton Rouge's Broadmoor High School. On October 31, 1979, 20 years to the day after his father's Halloween Run, Billy Jr. did the exact same thing, albeit in high school: Returned a punt 89 yards for a touchdown. In a weird twist of fate, it was against his father's alma mater, Istrouma High School.
Billy Jr. was All-American and All-State in both baseball and football at Broadmoor, and, with George Steinbrenner's fixation on signing football players who could play baseball (including John Elway), the Yankees drafted him in 1980.
But he disappointed both Steinbrenner and LSU fans, who'd hoped he would play at the same school as his father. Instead, he went to Texas A&M University, and became a star linebacker and kick returner. There were rumors that, like Peyton Manning a generation later, he purposely avoided his father's school, and thus his father's shadow. There were also rumors that A&M, like so many Texas schools flouting NCAA regulations, allowed money to change hands. Given the later legal troubles of Billy Sr., this is very believable.
Despite a successful dental practice, in the early 1980s, he made bad real estate investments, and he racked up gambling debts. To offset this, He got involved in a counterfeiting scheme, and got caught. He was convicted in 1983, and served 2 1/2 years in federal prison in Texarkana, Texas. He regained his dentistry license, but few of his patients returned: He had let them down, not as a dentist, or even as a sports legend, but as a person.
In 1981, Sports Illustrated writer Frank Deford published Everybody's All-American, a novel about a college football star of the 1950s who falls on hard times. It was set at the University of North Carolina, where Charlie "Choo-Choo" Justice had been a big star, and people presumed that the lead, Gavin Grey, a.k.a. "The Grey Ghost," was based on Justice.
In 1988, a film based on it was released, but the setting was moved to LSU. Officially, it was "The University of Louisiana," which doesn't exist in real life, but who was kidding who? The school was in Baton Rouge, the colors were purple and yellow, the team was the Tigers, they won the National Championship in 1958, and, as Grey, Dennis Quaid wore Number 20.
Grey stars for the Washington Redskins in the 1960s, but a knee injury curtails his career, and he ends up a wreck with the AFL's Denver Broncos, well before "Broncomania" turned them from a joke franchise into an iconic team.
At the end of the book, Grey, completely despondent, tries to kill his wife Babs, fails, and kills himself. As with the baseball saga The Natural, the film's ending is a bit more upbeat: Grey gets back on his feet, and mends his marriage to Babs (Jessica Lange).
By the time the film came out, Cannon's fall from grace was complete, and people simply assumed that Gavin Grey was based on Billy Cannon. Others, remembering the UNC-set book, presumed Charlie Justice. Defore denied both: "Never met Justice or Cannon, and hardly knew anything about them."
Ironically, it was the Louisiana State Penitentiary that rescued him. Their dental clinic was unable to keep dentists working there. They hired him to reorganize the clinic, and the warden was impressed enough to put him in charge of the prison's entire medial system. Dr. Billy Cannon remained the system's dentist for the rest of his life, and was beloved by the inmates.
It became okay to honor him again. A video of his Halloween Run is played on the Tiger Stadium jumbotron before every game. His Number 20 was retired. He was elected to the LSU Athletic Hall of Fame, the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame, and the College Football Hall of Fame.
Last August, LSU approved a proposal to erect a statue of him. Oddly, it depicts not his Halloween Run, but the game-saving tackle that he and Warren Rabb made at the end.