More than 58 years have passed since LSU and Texas Tech met for a football game.
That seems like it should be plenty of time for former Red Raiders standout Jack Henry to overcome that stinging 19-14 loss to the Tigers, or that blown late lead, or that one, crucial missed tackle.
He has done none of the above — especially the latter.
“We kicked off. And that damn Billy Cannon,” grumbled Henry, now a 78-year-old retired surgeon living in Lubbock. “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.”
That’s not what happened, though, is it, Jack?
“We hit ourselves. Ran into each other,” Henry said, resisting a laugh. “He made a 100-yard touchdown (97 yards, officially). You don’t forget that.”
Nearly six decades have come and gone since that Oct. 5, 1957, smash-mouth tussle in Lubbock. The United States has voted in 10 presidents and added two new states in that time. Louisiana has gone through a dozen governors and has lost more than 1,500 square miles of coastline to the Gulf of Mexico.
LSU and Texas Tech break their drought Tuesday at the Texas Bowl in Houston’s NRG Stadium.
The last time they met, players donned Riddell’s single-bar facemasks and awkward, suspension helmets — not the comfy, protective ones of 2015. They wore thin leather or canvas shoulder pads — not the sleek, plastic shells worn today.
They ran the Split T and Wing T formations — not the pistol, shotgun, wildcat and spread.
So much has changed.
“That was a long time ago,” one former player in that game said. “Hell, most of us are 77 years old.”
Some participants in that 1957 game remember little, struggling to recall the score, the key plays or the weather. Others remember the pregame festivities, postgame plane ride and the movie they watched the night before the game.
They can all remember and agree on at least one thing: Cannon returned a kickoff nearly the length of the field to send LSU to victory.
“I remember watching the film afterward,” said Scooter Purvis, Cannon’s backup at halfback during his career at LSU. “When he crossed the goal line, 10 seconds had run off the game clock. That’s a 10-flat 100 (yard dash) with a football under your arm and probably dodging a few people.”
“It was just like you draw it up on the books,” Cannon said. “Everybody got their blocks. Everybody got their angle. I made one little cut about the 40-yard line.”
Cannon’s kick return came moments after the Red Raiders took a 14-13 lead. That winning play was the highlight of the somewhat unremarkable game.
It epitomized LSU’s 1957 season: an unexceptional, ho-hum year — the Tigers finished 5-5, after all — overshadowed by the very thing it helped create: the 1958 national championship in an 11-0 season.
“It was a prelude,” said Lynn LeBlanc, a sophomore left tackle and defensive end on that 1957 squad. “It came to fruition in ’58.”
‘Fastest shower on record’
Roughly an hour after LSU’s game with Texas Tech ended, Bud Johnson and friends walked into a local Texas roadhouse for a postgame celebration.
“When we got there,” Johnson said, “lo and behold, Red Hendrix was in the middle of the dance floor.”
Hendrix started at end on LSU’s 1957 football team, and he’d go on to captain the 1958 national title squad. He had, somehow, made it to the bar before some fans.
“He beat us there,” Johnson said. “That was my introduction to Red Hendrix. He weighed 185, about 5-10 and had the fastest shower on record.”
Hendrix was one of two players named “Red” on that 1957 team. The squad’s starting quarterback was named “Win” Turner. The backfield that season included Cannon and Johnny Robinson, two stud sophomores, and senior Jimmy Taylor, a hard-running fullback who went on to become a Pro Football Hall of Famer with the Green Bay Packers.
Johnson said Taylor and Cannon both gained more yards that season than the Heisman Trophy winner, Texas A&M’s John David Crow.
Johnson, LSU’s former assistant and then head sports information director from 1958-71, drove, with his Army buddies, 350 miles from Fort Bliss, Texas, for that game.
From his seat on the 35-yard line, Johnson watched the Tigers lean on All-America workhorse Taylor — he had 90 rushing yards — and big-play sophomore Cannon. Cannon not only returned that kickoff, he turned a 10-yard swing pass into a 59-yard touchdown, too.
Cannon scored LSU’s last two touchdowns of the game.
The Tigers fell behind 7-0, tied it at 7 on a 10-yard, fourth-down touchdown pass late in the first half and took the lead at 13-7 on Cannon’s 59-yard reception in the second half.
“Spectacular play,” Johnson said. “He hurdled a guy.”
Cannon, now 78, hasn’t forgotten that one.
“The thing I remember is, right when I caught the ball, the defensive back was in position, and he took a low cut,” Cannon said. “And I hurdled over him.”
Texas Tech players who participated in that game compare the 59-yard catch-and-run to Cannon’s famous Halloween night punt return in a win over Ole Miss in 1959. Cannon caught the ball out of the backfield on a dump-off pass. It’s unclear who threw the pass. The box score from the game said halfback Red Brodnax threw it. Others said it was Turner.
Tech answered. The Red Raiders took a 14-13 lead as they “smashed their way” to the end zone, said a line from a story found in the 1958 LSU yearbook. Tech ran for 204 yards against LSU that night.
The Red Raiders, though, did not have Cannon.
He returned the ensuing kickoff 97 yards for that game-sealing score. The LSU yearbook said Cannon “sped down the middle, picking up perfect blocks.”
The Tech yearbook used seven sentences to summarize the game. The brief story referred to the LSU star as “Bobby Cannon.”
“He went untouched all of the way,” Lynn LeBlanc said.
Johnson watched the run from his seat as one of the few LSU fans among the 19,278 in attendance on a windswept night.
“LSU didn’t travel well in those days,” Johnson said. “I’m guessing the media, broadcasting crew and some military guys from Fort Bliss were the only LSU people there.”
A program-changing class
The movie was called “The Pride and the Passion.”
The action/adventure flick starred Cary Grant, Frank Sinatra and Sophia Loren. The movie occupied at least a few football players during the night before the game, said Alvin Aucoin, a two-way tackle and captain of the 1957 squad.
After all, what else was there to do in rural northwest Texas in the 1950s?
“I do remember us going and walking around downtown and window-shopping,” said LeBlanc, now 77 and a retiree living off College Drive in Baton Rouge. “There wasn’t much to do.”
LeBlanc was one of a handful of future all-star sophomores on that team. Along with sophomores Cannon and Purvis, the class included then-backup quarterback Warren Rabb and halfback Robinson, center Max Fugler and tackle Duane Leopard.
They were all part of coach Paul Dietzel’s first full recruiting class at the school. That 1956 signing class “turned LSU football around,” said Dave McCarty, a junior reserve lineman in 1957.
Most of those players emerged as stars during the next season’s national title run, when Dietzel created his now famous platoons: the White Team, the Go Team and the Chinese Bandits.
For instance, Robinson and Cannon formed the White Team’s backfield, LeBlanc and Fugler were on the line and Rabb quarterbacked. Leopard played on the line for the Chinese Bandits, and Purvis was the left halfback on the Go Team.
“The nucleus of the ’58 team was the ’56 class,” McCarty said.
That group began to blossom during the 1957 season, which ended with a .500 mark and Dietzel, then heading into Year 4, on the hot seat.
Freshmen couldn’t play on varsity until 1972. So, for Cannon, Robinson and other sophomores, the win over Tech was just the third game of their careers.
It was part of a two-week breakout stretch for the then-little-known Cannon, a versatile, athletic player who would go on to win the Heisman Trophy in 1959.
In the victory over the Red Raiders, Cannon flashed his stuff. He punted five times for a 40-yard average. He went 2-for-4 passing for 31 yards. He caught that 59-yard touchdown pass, returned that kickoff 97 yards and rushed 13 times for 36 yards.
“He could do anything,” Aucoin said. “He was the best football player I ever saw. He was the best athlete I ever saw.”
That performance followed a two-touchdown outing in a 28-0 drubbing of Alabama the week before. Cannon’s heroics quickly spread across the LSU community and the Southeast, and the Tigers returned home after those consecutive, Cannon-led wins before a rousing crowd.
More than 59,000 fans nestled into then-67,000-seat Tiger Stadium for a game against then-powerhouse and Southeastern Conference rival Georgia Tech. Two weeks before that, the Tigers drew just 33,000 for the game against Bama.
Everybody wanted to see this hotshot sophomore.
“This was in the day where nobody had a marketing department,” Bud Johnson said. “This was just word of mouth.”
‘I’ve got to feel better to die’
Billy Cannon asked into the phone, “Where are you?”
Jimmy Taylor answered: “Laying on the floor to keep cold.”
Where was Cannon?
“Doing the same!” he shouts, with a laugh, at a reporter, all these years later.
Back then, though, this was early September 1957, just days before the Tigers’ season opener at Rice, then a powerhouse.
The Asian flu pandemic was sweeping the nation. It found Baton Rouge — and the Tigers’ top two players. The Asian flu killed more than 1 million worldwide and nearly 70,000 in the U.S.
“I’ll never forget,” Cannon started, “we didn’t even practice two days before the game. Nobody’s in school. Everybody’s dying.”
Taylor is now 80 and lives in the Walden neighborhood in south Baton Rouge. His memory is fading. He doesn’t recall much from that season or that year. But his good friend and former teammate, Cannon, remembers the words Taylor used to describe his condition in that telephone call.
Taylor lay on his floor as his body ached and his fever climbed.
“ ‘I’ve got to feel better to die,’ ” he told Cannon.
LSU lost that 1957 season opener to Rice 20-14, giving up late scores in a second-half collapse.
“We had half of our team playing with the flu,” said Aucoin, now 79. “We had them 14-0 at halftime.”
Two weeks later, LSU was the beneficiary of the Asian flu’s effect. As the virus spread across the country, schools panicked. Tech administered flu shots to its players Sunday, Sept. 30, 1957 — six days before the teams played.
“Several of us got sick,” said Jack Henry, a junior center/linebacker for Tech. “In those days, they didn’t (take into consideration) that we had a game to play (within a week).”
“About half of the team got sick,” said Bob Stafford, a junior tight end and defensive end on that Tech squad. “Low-grade fever, upset stomachs. I had recovered by the game. The senior playing in front of me had not.”
Tech’s senior starting defensive end and tight end — they played both ways in that era — had a 103-degree fever an hour before kickoff. That meant Stafford received more playing time than ever. In fact, Stafford said he made maybe the biggest play of his career in that game.
He caught a 30-plus yard pass. The quarterback faked to Tech’s burly, 240-pound fullback off-tackle, wheeled around the opposite side on a bootleg and hit Stafford on a play called “26 swing pass,” he said.
None of it, though, could match Cannon’s night.
Said Henry with a laugh: “We should have given his ass the flu shot.”
A second wind
The horse was at least 20 hands high, and that’s a lot, says Purvis, now 77 and living in Baton Rouge.
On the home sideline, Texas Tech’s live mascot — a costumed figure called the Masked Rider atop a tall stallion — ran from one end zone to the other while LSU and Tech warmed up pregame.
“That son of a gun,” Purvis said. “He’d snort as he was taken down the sideline. He would take off, and that Red Raider cape of the rider would flop in the breeze. I thought I was in a dream.”
The west plains of Texas were an unfamiliar site for the boys from the bayou, and Dietzel knew this game would be no easy chore.
“I didn’t know but two Techs at that time: Louisiana Tech and Georgia Tech,” Purvis said. “I didn’t know Texas had a Tech.”
Tech finished 11-1 in 1953 and had seven-win seasons in 1954 and ’55 before going 2-7-1 in 1956. The Red Raiders, in 1957, were in their first season of a three-year transition phase from the Border Conference to the Southwest Conference.
The crumbling Border Conference had, at some point, included Arizona, Arizona State and New Mexico. Members of the Southwest Conference joined schools from the Big 8 two decades ago to form the modern day Big 12.
Dietzel’s primary concern regarded the altitude. Lubbock was 3,000 feet higher than Baton Rouge.
“When we landed there, I said, ‘What altitude?’ Everything was flat as a pancake for miles,” Aucoin said. “But we were in the High Plains — a little over 3,000 feet. It affected us to a certain extent. We got our second wind in the second half.”
The first half included a stunning 11 fumbles, each team recovering three, according to LSU’s yearbook. A box score confirmed that each squad recovered three fumbles.
Players describe the game with words like “tough” and “smash-mouth” and “hard-nosed.”
Each team ran the Split T formation, an offense sweeping the nation then, as the spread has done in the past decade. The quarterback aligns under center with a fullback directly behind him and halfbacks flanking the fullback.
“In other words,” Aucoin said, “it wasn’t a passing attack.”
The boys from Texas were ready to play, too, and a few of them let that be known.
“They had a very good football team there,” Cannon said. “They had a guy named E.J. Holub. He came over and hit one of our backs, and he got up and said, ‘My name is E.J. Holub, and I’m going to be here all night.’ ”
Holub eventually had an NFL career with the Dallas Texans and Kansas City Chiefs that included five AFL All-Star honors.
Tech’s focus against LSU was solely on Taylor, Cannon said.
“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.”
Aucoin may have made the game’s biggest play. You won’t find it in the box score or any game story, but the defensive tackle stuffed Tech’s bulky fullback on what he called “fourth down-and-about-a-foot-to-go.”
The stop came in the fourth quarter near LSU’s 20-yard line, preserving the 19-14 lead.
“When the ball was snapped, I could feel the double team coming,” Aucoin said. “You can only beat one at a time. That big boy came right at me. I don’t think I would have been able to stop him if they hadn’t double-teamed up. He ran into all three of us.”
LSU entered the 1958 season in a precarious situation.
Dietzel was squarely under pressure after having won 11 games, losing 17 and not finishing with a winning record yet.
Season-ticket sales were down or, at least, leveled off, said Johnson, who started as an assistant sports information director that season.
SEC sportswriters voted the Tigers eighth out of 12 teams.
“The natives,” Johnson remembered, “were restless.”
Dietzel had changes to make during the offseason between 1957 and 1958, changes that both developed from that little-known 1957 season.
The coach switched his offense from the Split T to the Wing T, a more misdirection rushing attack that featured counters and traps.
“It would take advantage of the speed of, say, Johnny Robinson and Billy Cannon,” said Aucoin, captain of the 1957 squad who served as a graduate assistant with Dietzel on that 1958 title team.
Dietzel’s next change: implementing the three platoons.
“I was there. He was the guy who came up with that idea,” Aucoin said. “He started the season feeling he didn’t have 22 men capable of playing in the Southeastern Conference.”
So Deitzel created three rotating teams: the White Team, made up of the best 11 offensive and defensive players; the Go Team, the next-best 11 offensive players; and the Chinese Bandits, the next-best 11 defensive players.
This kept his team fresh through the entirety of what were physically pounding contests between run-heavy squads.
These two changes were in reaction, Johnson said, to the weaknesses of the 1957 team: a stagnant offense that at times struggled to excel with All-America high school players Cannon and Taylor and a squad that collapsed in the second half of several games, clearly worn down from a lack of depth.
After the win over Texas Tech, LSU beat Georgia Tech 20-13 and whipped Kentucky 21-0 to move to 4-1 and vault to No. 10 in The Associated Press poll.
The Tigers lost the next four games: at Florida, at Vanderbilt, at Ole Miss and against Mississippi State. They scored 32 total points in those games.
“That four-game stretch exposed their lack of depth. They had to address a number of things in the offseason: their lack of depth and the offense,” Johnson said. “To go up to Vandy and get shut out with those two backs (Taylor and Cannon) … Dietzel wasn’t a legend that week. I can guarantee you.
“The lack of depth that year had something to do with that three-team system over the offseason the coaching staff created. That four-game losing streak made the staff manufacture depth.”
“Nobody beat us in the second half that year,” said Al Ott, referring to 1958.
Ott was a freshman in 1957 and was relegated to playing on the freshman team. They played a three-game schedule that year and attended all of the varsity home games. The freshmen mingled at times with the varsity.
Other times, there was no other choice but to mingle.
“Had a place called the Pastime,” Ott said. “They had a fight broke out there. Freshmen and the varsity were one that night.”
‘They told me he was dead’
LeBlanc, the ’59 team captain and a sophomore on that ’57 squad, was shocked to hear the good news: Aucoin is, in fact, still alive.
“They told me he was dead!” LeBlanc yelled through the phone, stunned.
Many of the players on that ’57 team have died. Those who spoke to The Advocate for this story are mostly still in Louisiana.
Johnson, Purvis, LeBlanc, Ott and Taylor live in or near Baton Rouge. Aucoin lives in the small bayou town of Bourg, an unincorporated community located about 10 miles southeast of Houma.
McCarty continues to work as a State Farm agent in Lake Charles, and Cannon is a dentist at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola.
Former Tech player Henry is in Lubbock after a successful career as a surgeon. Stafford, also a retired surgeon, lives in a retirement community in Amarillo, Texas.
All of them have their own opinions and ideas on modern college football and the impending game between LSU and Texas Tech.
Some, like Henry, even plan to attend the Texas Bowl. Henry isn’t optimistic about the result.
“LSU’s got that running back (Leonard Fournette),” he said.
Just like it did 58 years ago.
Said Henry: “That damn Cannon.”
Follow Ross Dellenger on Twitter, @RossDellenger.