One of my biggest secrets is that I can’t remember anything. The happy stuff, the harrowing stuff, or any stuff. If there was a cocked pistol pointing at my brain right now and some boogie man were to say, “Name the topic of one story you wrote last week or I’m gonna’ shoot you dead,” my only answer would be, “Pull the trigger.” I have an ex-wife who diagnosed me with “selective amnesia” but the truth is I remember painfully little about my life -- good or bad, short or tall, because when a happening or some event is over, it is really over for me.
I can’t tell you where I was when Kennedy got shot, hardly anything about my childhood, or the best game in any sport that I ever saw. But I vividly remember that I was sitting in the back seat of a green-and-white Ford on October 31, 1959. It was just about midnight and late for me, then 10 years old, to be out even if it was Halloween. The Dixie Crystal “Game of the week” was on the radio and I can still hear it.
Ole Miss was ahead, 3-0, against LSU on a foggy night in Tiger Stadium. A Reb punt took a high bounce at the LSU 11 and “Billy Cannon’s Run” was immediately etched in my memory forever. The eventual Heisman Trophy winner broke eight tackles – the last over All-American Jake Gibbs – and the 89-yard trip is to this day regarded as the greatest single moment in Southeastern Conference lore.
About 15 years later, I was at a game in Baton Rouge and got to meet Billy. Add a lot of years and he got where he would call me by name, where he wanted to know my latest joke, or just “jaw” as we shared a meal in the press box. I don’t know how I missed the fact he died a couple of weeks ago at the age of 80 but he was the only childhood hero I ever had.
What was better than his famous run was his legend.
The most popular story ever told in the State of Louisiana, even unto this day, is that Billy grew up in a rough part of Baton Rouge and attended Istrouma High School. There has never been a greater high school athlete. During his senior year (1955) he scored 39 touchdowns leading the Indians to the state title and accounting for 229 points, which was even greater because the coaches hardly ever played him in the second half of any game
Get this: That spring he ran the 100-yard dash in 9.6 seconds (yes, nine-point-six), then jogged to the other end of the track and sent a 16-pound shot over 56 feet – both state records. But the real story happened the summer before. During his junior year in high school the Texas A&M “satchel man” came through Baton Rouge and, with a daddy who was a janitor at LSU, Billy suddenly had a great deal of spending money after pledging his allegiance to the Aggies.
Before beginning his senior year in high school, it is alleged that Cannon and Co. lured a child molester into the swamp outside of Baton Rouge and “rolled” the guy, leaving him tied naked to a tree. Somehow the badly-beaten guy got loose and fingered Billy as the culprit. Now instead of going to college the best athlete in the state’s history would be going to prison.
But wait! The ‘hanging judge’ was a huge LSU fan and Cannon was amazingly placed only on probation, yet everybody all the way to Shreveport knew there was a strange proviso that was never recorded on paper but was very well understood: If Billy Cannon ever left Baton Rouge Parish for over two days in the next four years and he didn’t have the judge’s signed permission, the great star would go immediately to the slammer and begin a five-year stretch. Billy quickly signed with LSU and the rest, as they say, is history.
Billy Cannon’s story is great fun to follow. Here are some out-takes:
* -- When Cannon made his fabled Halloween-night run in ’59, you must remember there were 10 minutes on the stadium clock and Johnny Vaught’s Rebels were ‘real.’ Not only were both juggernauts undefeated, LSU had surrendered six points combined in their first six games, while Ole Miss gave up seven points and shut-out five of the six teams they played to that point.
Cannon’s TD put LSU up, 7-3, and Ole Miss proceeded to drive the field afterwards. On the last play of the game, Ole Miss’ vaunted runner, team captain Kent Lovelace, took the give at the 1-yard line but was smothered by the LSU middle linebacker. The linebacker was Billy Cannon.
During the summer before unbeatens Ole Miss and LSU would meet, an enterprising entrepreneur bought an entire section of upper-level tickets in Tiger Stadium for $3.25 per seat. The game, of course, was a total sellout and the ardent businessman was said to have made a bundle. His name was Billy Cannon.
* -- The Ole Miss victory set up the national championship against top-ranked Clemson in the Sugar Bowl and mind you, the college game was hardly as free and loose as it is today. In New Orleans, it was a titanic match-up and Mickey Mangrum caught a touchdown pass for LSU and the field goal was true in a 7-nothing game that gave LSU the national title. The quarterback who threw the pass: Billy Cannon. The field goal kicker’s name: Billy Cannon.
* -- Billy Cannon was not only a great athlete, he was gifted in other areas as well. When he received his degree is pre-dentistry from LSU (he had solid ‘B’ average,) he and his high school sweetheart, Dorothy, had already had three of their five children.
* -- Upon graduation, Billy played 11 seasons in the pros and was evermore valiant. During the off season, he received his dentistry doctorate at UT Memphis and advanced worth as an orthopedist at Loyola Chicago.
* -- As a pro, Cannon rushed for 2,455 yards in his 11-year career and scored 64 touchdowns – 17 rushing and 47 receiving.
* -- In 1983 he was embroiled in a zany $6 million counterfeiting rings. The Feds dug up ice coolers filled with millions in bogus bills in his backyard. Billy immediately said, “I gave it my best shot … I didn’t work.” Sentenced to four years in prison, he was out in three.
* -- From 1983 until present, Billy Cannon headed dentistry for Angola prison at no charge. Angola is recognized as one of the worst and most deadly prisons in the United States. Of course, he didn’t have to ... but he did. After he was sentenced to four years in prison, he was being led out of the courtroom when said to the US Marshall: “The way you can tell a counterfeit $100 is to see if Benjamin Franklin has any braces on his teeth.”
Billy Cannon was one of the greatest athletes of my time. He could do, endorse, and cash anytime he wanted but, to me, he was far more. Here’s a legend… an evermore legend … who could spark anything he ever wanted. Yet all I could give Billy Cannon was friendship and, man oh man, we had a richness that I don’t believe could ever be measured. God’s speed, Billy Cannon. God’s speed sir.