After a life of spectacular highs and lows — of glory, scandal and redemption — Billy Cannon could have had his pick of authors to write his biography. There were two problems: He really didn’t want to tell his story, and didn’t trust anyone to tell it.
Until last year. Now, Cannon’s life is, literally, an open book.
An Episcopal deacon and former television reporter, Charles deGravelles admits he was an unlikely choice to become Cannon’s biographer. But his ministry at Louisiana State Penitentiary, where Cannon has overseen inmate dental treatment for two decades, helped the trust issue after corrections official Richard Thompson encouraged Cannon to consider him.
The result is “Billy Cannon: A Long, Long Run,” a title evocative of the most famous play in LSU football history, and of a 78-year-old life that, in spite of everything, shows no signs of slowing down. The book goes on sale Monday.
“There’s great sportswriters that would have given their eye teeth to have a chance to write this book, so when I had the chance to write it, I just jumped at it like a kid in a candy store,” deGravelles said.
Cannon is a college football legend: a key member of LSU’s 1958 national champions and 1959 Heisman Trophy winner — an honor probably clinched by his 89-yard punt return in the Tigers’ 7-3 win over Ole Miss — and member of the College Football Hall of Fame. This was a prelude to a 10-year pro football career.
“The football is the reason many people are going to read the book, but I was just as fascinated with his life, his culture, the struggles he’s had, the moral struggles he’s had,” deGravelles said.
Cannon’s family came to Baton Rouge when his father, Harvey Cannon Sr., left Mississippi farm life to work at Standard Oil in 1942.
The family settled into the refinery’s nearby neighborhoods, which grew rapidly as World War II increased work at the plants.
“Charles has written a part of Baton Rouge, a history of the north side,” Cannon said. “He brings out the north side as much as be brings out the football and the athletics, and I like that. I had a lot of great friends. We had a great school. … It was an upwardly mobile group, and we had a lot of fun.”
Not all of the fun was by the rules. The summer before his senior year, Cannon was arrested with some friends for roughing up and robbing a man. The book does not shy away from this, or Cannon’s other, better-known legal difficulties.
“That was the ground rule,” deGravelles said. “I said it’s got to be honest; it’s got to be real. He said, ‘That’s all I’m asking. Just tell the truth.’ I’ve read all the newspaper accounts, and there’s a lot of misinformation that’s been published.”
That misinformation included, after Cannon decided to play football at LSU, comments by rival college coaches that they hadn’t recruited Cannon because he was a thug. Cannon knew better.
“I didn’t mind being called a thug, but it really irritated me for them to say they didn’t recruit me, because they did,” he said.
But that was a minor irritation compared to what happened after Cannon’s 1983 arrest for his part of a counterfeiting ring.
A successful orthodontist and local legend, it seemed unimaginable. Cannon, however, had invested heavily in real estate, and foreclosure loomed when the market turned sour. But it was widely reported that the real reason was gambling debts.
“That misrepresentation that I was a heavy gambler was not true,” Cannon said. “If I had a horse running and I owned the horse and I knew the horse was ready, I’d bet $100 on it. Outside, $200. I could afford it. I was making good money. But to say I was overloaded with gambling debts, I was not. But that was very popular to write, and nobody else told them any different.”
Once caught, Cannon immediately confessed and pleaded guilty. Released from prison in 1986, he regained his dental license but found it hard to re-establish a practice. Then, in 1995, Warden Burl Cain approached him about improving Louisiana State Penitentiary’s dental office.
Cannon found an office culture where dentists didn’t want to work and inmate needs were ignored.
He replaced most of the staff and created protocols that required that all patients’ dental needs must be addressed. He says he’s proud of what’s been accomplished.
“When I got here, a lot of the security officers would tell me, ‘Cannon, you’ve got too much sympathy for these convicts,’” he said. “I’d have to correct them to tell them, ‘It’s not sympathy, it’s empathy.’ I can understand on a given day how a person could put himself in position to be locked up for the rest of his life.”
What deGravelles likes about the story is how, for his flaws, Cannon never let the low points define him.
“He did his jail time. He came out. He took it like a man,” deGravelles said. “He went on with his life with his head up. That’s a tremendous thing to hit a low that low and to keep on going. What he’s done in the years since at Angola have been very quiet. He does not draw attention to himself. He has done tremendous work up there. Those men admire him.”
What does Cannon hope people take from his story?
“That they would think, ‘Boy, he had a great life,’” Cannon said. “Plusses, minuses, but a lot more plusses for me.”