Looking back on Billy Cannon's career
In its 110-year history, LSU claims just one Heisman winner: legendary offensive weapon Billy Cannon. Even more than 50 years after his LSU career ended, Cannon still stands out as one of the greatest Tigers of all time.
Born in Philadelphia, Miss., Cannon moved to Baton Rouge as a child when his father found a job there during World War II. There, he attended Istrouma High School, where he excelled as an athlete in multiple sports. He was an All-State and All-American player and led his team to a state championship as a senior, scoring 39 touchdowns in 1955. He may have been even better in track and field, though. He threw the shot put more than 57 feet, ran the 100-yard dash in 9.4 seconds, setting Louisiana state records in both.
After high school, Cannon elected to stay home to play for his hometown school.
Cannon showed off his versatility from the first day he stepped onto the field. He put up 782 yards of total offense and five touchdowns in 1957, also attempting 16 passes. His sophomore year he took it up a notch, winning the UPI (coaches) Player of the Year Award while racking up 848 total yards and 11 scores, averaging 6.0 yards per rushing attempt. He led LSU to an undefeated campaign, the last in school history, and a national championship. In the Sugar Bowl, which LSU won 7-0, Cannon threw the only touchdown of the game to give LSU the win.
While the Tigers won the championship in 1958, Cannon won his Heisman in his senior season in 1959. As a consensus All-American for the second consecutive year and the SEC Player of the Year, Cannon led LSU on a bid to repeat as national champions that fell short in a close loss to Tennessee. His signature play was an 89-yard kick return touchdown against Ole Miss on Halloween night that year.
Cannon also improved in track when he got to college. He dropped his 100-yard dash time to 9.4 seconds and, using a heavier shot, recorded a shot put distance of 54 feet. For a frame of reference, that would put him on par with NCAA championship meet qualifiers today. Cannon was always one of the fastest players on the field on top of being one of the biggest players on the team; at 210 pounds, no LSU player outweighed Cannon by more than a few pounds.
Pro career (1960-1970)
After his Heisman season, a bidding war for Cannon’s services at the pro level took off. It started off when Houston Oilers owner Bud Adams was on the field to meet Cannon right after the 1959 Sugar Bowl to offer him a contract. Cannon was drafted No. 1 overall by the NFL’s Los Angeles Rams and the AFL’s Oilers. The battle for Cannon’s services ended up going to court, with the AFL and Houston winning out.
Cannon was an instant star for the Oilers, leading them to back-to-back AFL championships in 1960-61. He led the AFL in total yards in 1961, going over 2,000 yards for the season. He scored the game-winning touchdown in the 1960 championship game and was MVP of both title games.
Following a back injury, Cannon moved to tight end when he was acquired by the Oakland Raiders. The excellent athlete he was, Cannon excelled there too, becoming a all-star player and helping the Raiders to their first Super Bowl championship.
Cannon finished his career with 8,003 total yards and 63 touchdowns, winning three total championships.
Cannon’s life away from the field is fairly checkered. While playing in the AFL, he attended dental school at the University of Tennessee as well as Loyola Chicago, earning his D.D.S. degree and opening a dental practice
In 1983, he was arrested and charged in one of the largest counterfeiting schemes in United States history. After a series of bad real estate investments and some gambling debts, Cannon printed $50 million in counterfeit $100 bills. He was arrested and eventually sentenced to five years in prison, serving more than two years of his sentence.
Cannon was forced to sell his Heisman Trophy as he struggled to rebuild his dental practice following his release from prison. He eventually became the dentist for the Louisiana State Penitentiary. In 2013, Cannon suffered a stroke but made a quick recovery.