“Billy Cannon: A Long, Long Run,” by Charles N. deGravelles, LSU Press, $27.50
The one question that always hangs over a biography, particularly if the subject cooperated in the process, is whether it will be honest. Will the truth be sugarcoated? Will excuses be made? Will the reader get to the end thinking, “Yes, but …”
It takes Charles deGravelles only 11 pages to settle the issue. No, this is not a hagiography. This is about Billy Cannon — good, bad and in between.
And, the more the pages turn, it’s the honesty of the book that stands out. For this, both the author and the subject deserve a lot of credit.
Everyone familiar with Cannon knows his life has been a modern-day Greek fable. Still, it is clear that the sports legend is entirely comfortable with sharing his triumphs and his flaws with refreshing candor. In a time when neurosis seems to be the calling card of the famous, Cannon appears remarkably at peace with who he’s been and who he’s become.
DeGravelles spent 11 months and hundreds of hours interviewing Cannon, those associated with him, researching and writing this 90,000-word book. He doesn’t try to wow readers with flowery wordcraft, but often quotes Cannon revealing his story, filled as it is with triumph, failure and a life rebuilt.
As for Cannon’s most famous failure — his 1983 counterfeiting conviction — he is candid about why and how it happened. Similarly, there are plenty of behind-the-scenes moments that accompanied his athletic career at LSU and professional football.
The book also looks in detail at Cannon’s youth, including some of the hardships faced when a work accident left his father jobless, and the young Cannon struggled with how he felt about accepting the charity of church members.
It paints a vivid picture of 1950s north Baton Rouge, when fans filled stadiums to watch his exploits, and details the hijinks of an adolescent who stayed close to the line that separated fun from trouble.
As well, deGravelles tells of Cannon’s work improving dental care for inmates at Louisiana State Penitentiary, something that has gone little-noticed, largely because Cannon wanted it that way.
Similarly, his charitable side — providing dental care to patients who couldn’t afford it — was something hidden from public view. Some of the books include bookmarks inviting readers to support one of Cannon’s favorite charities, Johnny Robinson’s Boys Home, run by one of Cannon’s LSU teammates.
This is a long-overdue look at one of Baton Rouge’s and the sporting world’s most enigmatic characters. Honestly.