Billy Cannon

For his son, a linebacker, see Billy Cannon Jr.

Billy Cannon

Black and white posed shot of Cannon from the thighs up, in the stiff-arm position, cradling a football, wearing pads and a jersey number 20, helmet-less

Cannon at LSU
No. 20, 33, 80
Position: Halfback, fullback, tight end
Personal information
Date of birth: (1937-08-02) August 2, 1937
Place of birth: Philadelphia, Mississippi
Height: 6 ft 1 in (1.85 m)
Weight: 207 lb (94 kg)
Career information
High school: Baton Rouge (LA) Istrouma
College: LSU
NFL Draft: 1960 / Round: 1 / Pick: 1
AFL draft: 1960 / Round: 1 / Pick: territorial
Career history
Career highlights and awards
Career professional statistics
Rushing yards: 2,455
Rushing average: 4.1
Rushing touchdowns: 17
Receptions: 236
Receiving yards: 3,656
Receiving touchdowns: 47
Player stats at PFR

William Abb Cannon (born August 2, 1937) is a former professional American football player. He attended Louisiana State University (LSU), where he played college football as a halfback and return specialist for the LSU Tigers. At LSU, Cannon was twice unanimously named an All-American, helped the 1958 team win a national championship, and received the Heisman Trophy as the nation's most outstanding college player in 1959. His punt return against Ole Miss on Halloween night in 1959 is considered one of the most notable plays in LSU sports history. He was selected as the first overall pick the 1960 National Football League draft and as a first-round territorial pick in the 1960 American Football League draft, resulting in a contract dispute that ended in court. Cannon played professionally in the American Football League (AFL) for the Houston Oilers and Oakland Raiders before ending his football career with the Kansas City Chiefs of the National Football League (NFL).

Cannon began his AFL career as a halfback for the Oilers. A two-time AFL All-Star, Cannon led the league in rushing and all-purpose yards in 1961. He was named the most valuable player of the first two AFL championship games, which were won by the Oilers. He was moved to fullback and later tight end after being traded to the Raiders, with whom he won another league championship in 1967. That season he played in the second AFL–NFL World Championship game, retroactively known as Super Bowl II, in which his team was defeated by the Green Bay Packers.

Cannon became a dentist after retiring from football. In 1983, after a series of bad real estate investments, he became involved in a counterfeiting scheme and served two and a half years in prison. In 1995, he was hired as a dentist at Louisiana State Penitentiary, a position he still holds as of 2016. His jersey number 20 was retired by LSU football in 1960, and he was inducted into the LSU Athletic Hall of Fame in 1975, the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame in 1976, and the College Football Hall of Fame in 2008.

Early life and high school

Cannon was born in Neshoba County, Mississippi to Harvey and Virgie Cannon, and moved to Baton Rouge, Louisiana when his father got a job there during World War II.[1][2] He attended Istrouma High School in Baton Rouge, where he was noted for his speed, strength, and size, and became a standout athlete in football, basketball, and track.[3] In football, Cannon scored 39 touchdowns his senior year in 1955, in which he was named All-State and All-America and led the Istrouma Indians to a state championship.[4] He set a state scoring record of 229 points, even though he often played only in the first half of games.[5] In track, he ran the 100-yard dash in 9.6 seconds and threw the shot-put over 56 feet, breaking the state records for both.[6][5] In the summer of 1955, Cannon was given a 90-day suspended sentence for theft after he and some friends were caught roughing-up men they saw entering hotels with prostitutes.[1][7] This was the first in a series of legal troubles that plagued Cannon throughout his life.[7]

College career

Despite his discipline issues, Cannon was heavily recruited out of high school.[1][8] His top options were Florida, LSU, and Ole Miss.[9][10] He ultimately decided on LSU when he was promised a job between semesters at a local car dealership; a job wasn't guaranteed if he attended college elsewhere.[11] His mother Vergie also played a role in him choosing the Tigers, persuading him to stay close to home. "Mommy was older and wiser, and I followed her advice", said Cannon.[10]

1957 season

Cannon began his varsity LSU football career as a sophomore in the 1957 season under coach Paul Dietzel. He played halfback and shared the backfield with All-American Jim Taylor.[12] He also played defensive back and was the team's primary punter.[13] He quickly emerged as a star, as he scored twice in early season victories over both Alabama and Texas Tech.[3] The Alabama game ended up being the most prolific rushing game of Cannon's college career, as he amassed 140 yards on eight carries.[13][14] In the game against the Red Raiders, Cannon had five punts for a 40-yard average, completed two of four passes for 31 yards, caught a 59-yard pass for a touchdown, had 36 yards rushing on thirteen carries, and returned a kickoff for a touchdown.[15] Cannon recalled that Texas Tech's focus was solely on Taylor. "They were just wearing Jimmy out", he said. "Of course, they weren't looking for me. They just beat the devil out of Jimmy. With them focusing on Jimmy, I had a great game."[15] Over half a century later, former Red Raiders standout Jack Henry recalled of Cannon:

"We kicked off. And that damn Billy Cannon. Jim Henderson and I were running down in our lanes and got down there, and we were going to hit him high and low. We were going to knock the hell out of him ... We hit ourselves. Ran into each other. He made a 100-yard touchdown. You don't forget that."[15]

The Tigers won their next two games before dropping four straight, but were competitive in every game, largely due to the play of Cannon and Taylor.[3] LSU completed the season with a win over rival Tulane and a 5–5 record after being picked to finish last in the conference.[3] At the end of the season Cannon was named to the Associated Press (AP) Southeastern Conference (SEC) All-Sophomore team and earned second-team All-SEC honors from United Press International (UPI).[16] He also led the country with a 31.2 yard kickoff return average.[17]

1958 season

In 1958, coach Dietzel implemented his "three-platoon system", which split the team into the "Go Team", the "White Team", and the "Chinese Bandits"[18] The White Team made up the starting unit for the Tigers and was led by Cannon. It consisted of the team's most talented players who excelled on both offense and defense.[18] With Jim Taylor graduating, Dietzel was able to give Cannon more playing time on offense.[19] LSU entered the season with talent and depth on both sides of the ball.[20] The team defeated its first five opponents by an average of three touchdowns.[20][21] The sixth game of the season was against Florida for LSU's homecoming. Cannon led the Tigers to a 10–7 win as he scored their only touchdown of the game in the second quarter.[22] The following week the Tigers were ranked first in the AP Poll.[23] The team remained there as it finished the regular season undefeated and was named national champion by the AP and UPI.[24] LSU followed up with a 7–0 victory over Clemson in the Sugar Bowl.[24] Cannon was responsible for all seven points scored in the game, as he threw a touchdown pass to Mickey Mangham and then kicked the extra point.[13]

After the season, Cannon was named a unanimous All-American.[25][26][27] He was awarded player of the year honors by United Press International, The Sporting News, and the Touchdown Club of Columbus.[28][29][30] In addition, he was voted to the All-SEC team and was deemed SEC Most Valuable Player by the Nashville Banner after leading the conference in rushing yards, average, and touchdowns.[13][31] Cannon finished third in voting for the Heisman Trophy, behind winner, Pete Dawkins of Army, and runner-up, Randy Duncan of Iowa.[32] "It's a wonderful thing", Dietzel said of Cannon's accolades. "Billy Cannon is the finest football player I've ever coached."[28]

1959 season

With Cannon and most defensive starters returning, LSU was expected to compete for another title in 1959.[33] The Tigers began the season as the top-ranked team, and season-ticket holders tripled from the previous season.[24] The team won its first six games without allowing a touchdown.[33] Cannon showed his versatility in those games, as he led the team in total yards on offense, returned an interception for a touchdown on defense, and averaged 40 yards per punt while also returning punts and kickoffs.[10][13] This set up a highly anticipated match-up between LSU and rival Ole Miss Rebels, who were also undefeated.[34][33][35]

Black and white image of Cannon during his punt return against Ole Miss, running between several defenders
Cannon running through Ole Miss defenders

Halloween run

External video
Cannon's punt return, YouTube video. The return begins at 1:15 of the video.

On Halloween night, Cannon led LSU into Tiger Stadium to face third-ranked Ole Miss. It was a defensive struggle, as neither team's offense managed to reach the endzone.[33] Late in the fourth quarter, the Tigers were trailing 0–3 before Cannon returned a punt 89 yards for a touchdown, breaking seven tackles and running the last 60 yards untouched.[35][36][37] The Rebels mounted one last drive and managed to reach the Tigers' 1-yard line before being stopped on fourth down. The game-saving tackle was made by Cannon and Warren Rabb with 18 seconds on the clock to secure the 7–3 win.[38] After the game, Cannon lay down in the tunnel, exhausted and unable to make it to the locker room.[37] LSU's chances to repeat as national champion effectively ended the following week with a 13–14 loss to Tennessee, after a failed two-point conversion attempt by Cannon.[39] The Tigers finished the season with a rematch against Ole Miss in the Sugar Bowl, in which they were defeated 21–0.[38]

Cannon was awarded the Heisman Trophy as the nation's most outstanding player in 1959. He had 598 rushing yards and scored six touchdowns total on the year.[13] However, his performance on Halloween night and his defensive play throughout the season was enough to convince voters.[36][37][40][41] "The thing that clinched the Heisman for me was that I made a play or two in a big game", he later explained.[42] He received the award from Vice President Richard Nixon during a ceremony on December 9 at the Downtown Athletic Club in New York City.[36] Cannon was the second player from the SEC to win the trophy, following Georgia's Frank Sinkwich in 1942.[43] He received over five times as many first-place votes as the runner-up.[40] Cannon also repeated on nearly every award he won the previous season, including unanimous All-America honors.[13][44] Shortly after the 1959 season, the LSU football team retired Cannon's number 20 jersey.[13] It was the only jersey retired by the team until fifty years later, when Tommy Casanova's jersey became the second in 2009.[45]

Professional career

Contract dispute

In November 1959, Cannon signed a contract with Los Angeles Rams general manager Pete Rozelle, in which he agreed to play for the Rams in the National Football League.[46] The contract was for three years for $30,000, plus a $10,000 signing bonus.[46] Two months later, on the field after LSU's Sugar Bowl loss, Cannon signed another contract; this one was with the American Football League's Houston Oilers, whose owner Bud Adams offered Cannon $33,000 a year for three years with a $10,000 signing bonus.[47] At Cannon's request, Adams also promised him a Cadillac for his father.[48] When word got out that he had signed with two different teams, the Rams filed a suit that claimed Cannon was bound by their contract and could not sign with Houston.[49][50] Judge William Lindberg ruled against the Rams, stating the contracts were void and that Rozelle had taken advantage of Cannon's naivete. Lindberg described Cannon as "exceptionally naive ... a provincial lad untutored and unwise in the ways of the business world."[51] The AFL's victory against the established NFL helped bring legitimacy to the fledgling league.[52][53][54] After the ruling Cannon finalized his contract to play in the AFL for the Oilers. The contract made him the first $100,000 professional football player.[55][56][57]

Houston Oilers

Cannon joined the newly formed Oilers under head coach Lou Rymkus.[58] Due to being one of the highest-paid players in professional football he was heckled early on by opposing players.[59] He also did not get along well with Rymkus, described by Cannon as "unpleasant, confrontational, with a nasty disposition and an oversized ego."[60] In Cannon's rookie year he led the team in rushing with 644 yards, and also caught five touchdown passes.[61] His 88-yard touchdown reception from quarterback George Blanda in the 1960 AFL Championship Game helped the Oilers become the inaugural AFL champions, and he was named the game's most valuable player.[62]

The 1961 season started poorly for the Oilers and Rymkus was fired.[63] Houston then won ten consecutive games with Wally Lemm as head coach.[64] In one of those games, against the New York Titans Cannon set a professional football record with 373 all-purpose yards and scored five touchdowns.[65][57] His 216 rushing yards in the game were also an AFL record.[66] He finished the season as the AFL's leading rusher with 948 yards and led the league in all-purpose yards.[64][58] The Oilers repeated as AFL champions and Cannon again was the game's MVP, as he scored the only touchdown.[65] The Sporting News named him to the 1961 AFL All-League Team and he was invited to play in the 1961 AFL All-Star Game.[65]

Cannon injured his back in the third game of the 1962 season, and his production dropped.[67] He still finished second on the team in scoring behind Blanda.[67] The Oilers made it to the championship game a third time, but lost to the Dallas Texans in the first ever double-overtime game in pro football history.[58][68] New leg injuries and lingering back problems caused Cannon to sit out much of the 1963 season.[69] This, coupled with the Oilers' release of Lemm, led Cannon to request being cut by the team. His request was granted. "I left the team with good feelings and a lot of good friends", Cannon recalled. "It was just time to go."[70]

Oakland Raiders

Cannon was traded to the Oakland Raiders before the 1964 season.[71] Raiders head coach Al Davis liked Cannon's abilities but did not know how he wanted to use him. At first Davis moved Cannon to fullback.[70] At fullback he was an asset in catching passes, an attribute not all fullbacks possessed at the time.[70] After a slow start, he finished the season with 37 receptions for 454 yards and eight touchdowns.[72][73] He also rushed for three more touchdowns.[73] The next season Davis moved him to tight end, to the chagrin of Cannon; he expected to be made into a wide receiver, but the Raiders were set at the position with Art Powell and rookie Fred Biletnikoff.[74] He eventually accepted his role and adapted to the new position quickly.[75] However, the tight end was seldom used in the Raiders' offense.[76] He caught only seven passes that season with no touchdowns. Before the 1966 season, John Rauch took over as head coach as Al Davis became AFL commissioner and the Raiders' general manager.[77] Cannon established himself as a deep threat in Rauch's offense and caught fourteen passes for 436 yards—an average of 31.4 yards per reception.[75][73]

Cannon fully bought-in to the Raiders organization and game-plan by 1967 and believed a championship was near for the team.[78] He convinced Davis to sign Blanda as a placekicker and a mentor for quarterback Daryle Lamonica.[79] That year, Cannon led all AFL tight ends with 629 yards receiving and ten touchdowns in his most productive season at the position.[80][57] For the second time he was an All-AFL selection, this time as a tight end.[80] His efforts helped the Raiders to the 1967 AFL Championship game against the Oilers and a 40–7 victory over his former team.[79] Because of a new agreement between the two leagues, the Raiders earned a place in the second AFL–NFL World Championship game, in which they faced the Green Bay Packers. Early in the fourth quarter, Cannon dropped a pass while wide-open on a play on which he would have scored. He later described it as "the clumsiest drop of my career."[80] Green Bay won the game, 33–14.[81]

Cannon had a modest 1968 season in which he caught six touchdown passes—including one of 48 yards in the second quarter of the infamous Heidi Game—but knew he would not be in Oakland much longer.[82] Head coach John Madden had relegated him to running decoy routes by 1969 and he had only two touchdowns.[82] Nevertheless, he was invited as a replacement to play in his second All-Star game.[73] Cannon was released by the Raiders during the 1970 preseason.[83][54]

Kansas City Chiefs and retirement

As he was preparing to begin post-graduate studies in orthodontics at Loyola University in Chicago, Cannon received a call from Kansas City Chiefs head coach Hank Stram. Stram signed Cannon to a one-year contract and he played in six games for the Chiefs in 1970, catching two touchdowns before a season-ending injury convinced him to quit playing for good.[84] He ended his eleven-year professional career with 2,455 yards rushing, 3,656 receiving yards, and 64 touchdowns on offense. He also threw one touchdown pass and returned a kickoff for a touchdown.[73] Cannon holds the NFL record for the most yards from scrimmage in a non-overtime game (330 against the New York Titans in 1961)[85] and is tied with four other players for the most touchdown receptions by a running back in a season (nine in 1961).[86]

Personal and later life

Color image of the front entrance to Louisiana State Penitentiary
Cannon works as a dentist at the Louisiana State Penitentiary.

Cannon married his high school sweetheart, Dot Dupuy, while they were both freshmen at LSU.[7] They have five children together.[37] His son Billy Cannon Jr. played as a linebacker for Texas A&M and was selected in the first round of the 1984 NFL Draft by the Dallas Cowboys.[87]

Cannon Sr. graduated from LSU in 1959 and completed post-graduate studies at the University of Tennessee during the off-season while with the Oilers.[88] There he earned a D.D.S. and later earned additional degrees in orthodontia from Loyola University Chicago.[89] After retiring from football he returned to Baton Rouge and started his own dental practice.[90]

Despite a successful practice, by 1983 he was in financial difficulties from bad real estate investments and gambling debts.[91] He became involved in a counterfeiting scheme and had printed $6 million in U.S. 100-dollar bills, some of which he stored in ice chests buried in the backyard of one of the houses he owned and rented out.[56][92][93][94] He and five others were charged in the scheme, and he served two and a half years of a five-year sentence at the Federal Correctional Institution, Texarkana.[55][95] Upon his release in 1986, he regained his dentistry license but struggled to rebuild his practice.[37] In 1990, Cannon was an honorary pallbearer at the funeral of former Teamsters Union business agent Edward Grady Partin, whose testimony in 1964 had sent Jimmy Hoffa to prison for jury tampering.[96] In 1995, he was hired as a dentist at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, initially as a contractor. At the time, the dental clinic in the prison was in chaos, with many dentists refusing to work and inmates often being unable to make appointments.[37] Cannon immediately set to reorganizing the dental program with great success and was soon hired as a full-time employee.[97] Warden Burl Cain, impressed with Cannon's work with the dental program, later put him in charge of the prison's entire medical system.[37] Cannon remains the resident dentist at the penitentiary, where inmates typically call him "Legend".[37][98]

Cannon resides in St. Francisville, Louisiana with his wife Dot. On February 19, 2013, Cannon was hospitalized in intensive care in Baton Rouge after suffering a stroke.[99] He was released two days later, returned to work the following Monday, and made a full recovery.[100][101]


Cannon remains a respected and iconic figure in Louisiana sports, despite his legal troubles.[35][37][55] During a homecoming game for LSU in 2003, he was honored by the university as he stood on the field between the first and second quarters. Fans gave a long standing ovation and players raised their helmets in salute, leading athletic director Skip Bertman to proclaim to a friend, "He's still the icon, isn't he?"[55] His punt return on Halloween night in 1959 is still played on the big screen in Tiger Stadium before every home game.[7] As of 2016, Cannon remains LSU's only Heisman winner, and his number 20 jersey remains one of only two jerseys retired by LSU football.[45] He was selected as a halfback on an Associated Press Southeast Area All-Time football team: 1920–1969 era, edging out Beattie Feathers by one vote.[102] In 1975, he was inducted into the LSU Athletic Hall of Fame, followed by the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame the next year.[13] He had originally been elected to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1983, but the hall rescinded the honor before his induction due to his confessed involvement in the counterfeiting scheme.[37] The hall elected him a second time in 2008, and he was formally inducted during a ceremony on December 9 of that year.[103] In 2012, Cannon was retroactively given the Jet Award as a "legacy" winner for the 1959 season, honoring the top return specialist in college football.[104]

See also


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  5. 1 2 deGravelles 2015, p. 2.
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  103. LSU Sports Interactive (October 29, 2009). "Tiger Great Billy Cannon Elected to College Football Hall of Fame". Archived from the original on March 3, 2016. Retrieved January 8, 2016.
  104. "Stanford's Montgomery Named 2013 "The Jet" Return Specialist Award Winner". PR Newswire. January 9, 2014. Archived from the original on September 24, 2016. Retrieved September 24, 2016.


  • Blevins, Dave (August 31, 2012). College Football Awards: All National and Conference Winners Through 2010. McFarland. ISBN 0-7864-4867-9. 
  • deGravelles, Charles (2015). Billy Cannon: A Long, Long Run. Baton Rouge, La.: Louisiana State University Press. ISBN 978-0-8071-6220-0. 
  • Jones, Danny (2011). Lost Treasures from the Golden Era of America's Game: Pro Football's Forgotten Heroes and Legends of the 50's, 60's, and 70's. AuthorHouse. ISBN 1-4567-1685-9. 
  • Vincent, Herb (2008). LSU Football Vault: The History of the Fighting Tigers. Whitman Publishing, LLC. ISBN 0-7948-2428-5. 

External links

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