Hundreds gathered Wednesday at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center on LSU's campus wearing purple and gold to celebrate the life of LSU's only Heisman trophy winner, Billy Cannon, three days after he died in his sleep. He was 80.
Cannon's life was represented through the people who shared memories of him, from high school football rival turned LSU teammate Warren Raab to Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola Warden Darrel Vannoy, who read letters from inmates who knew Cannon as a dentist at the prison. They all seemed to echo the same sentiment that Cannon was a humble team player who always put others before himself.
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Former Angola Warden Burl Cain reminisced on how Cannon gave an acceptance speech when he was inducted into LSU's Hall of Fame only to spend the time listing other people who should have been inducted instead of him. Rabb explained with a chuckle how Cannon let him borrow his Heisman Trophy, which sat above Cannon's casket Wednesday, to use in a sales pitch at a local high school.
A "long-time overdue" statue of Cannon will soon be erected on LSU's campus, Rabb said, but the names of all of Cannon's teammates will also be incorporated in it because of how much they meant to Cannon.
"It was always about the team. It wasn't about him," Rabb said of Cannon. "That's what was important to him. That's what I want you to know about him. It's critical. It's a tremendous trait to have to give credit to other people and not take it yourself. That's exactly what he did."
Cannon, a Baton Rouge native who became one of Louisiana's most revered athletes, kickstarted his legendary career at Istrouma High School, before moving on to LSU and eventually three teams in the American Football League from 1960-70. At LSU, he became the central figure on the Tiger's 1958 national championship football team, was a two-time All-American. Cannon was also an accomplished sprinter and shot-putter on LSU's track and field team, winning both the 100 meter dash and the shot put at a single SEC meet, as highlighted during his funeral by former teammate Jimmy Field.
More than just an iconic athlete, Cannon became a dentist who specialized in orthodontics and found success investing in real estate.
But his successes also became intertwined with one of the most perplexing downfalls in Louisiana sports history. In 1983, he was identified as the main figure in a $6 million counterfeiting scheme after FBI agents found phony money in ice coolers buried on a parcel of one of Cannon’s properties. The case was said to rank among the biggest in U.S. history. Cannon was sentenced to five years in prison and fined $10,000.
"He made a mistake like we all do. He paid the price," Field said. "And when he was selected as alumnus of the year in 2011 I put my arm around him and said 'Billy, you know what it is to be redeemed. The LSU family has forgiven you, has accepted you and they love you.'"
After his release, Cannon eventually moved his dentistry practice to Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, where he provided the dental care for inmates for 22 years starting in the 1990s and later oversaw the facility's entire medical system. Cain recalled interviewing and hiring Cannon for the job, saying that the inmates were "about to sue us because of the quality of care."
"When they knew Dr. Cannon was there and he was in charge, everybody just settled down. Everything got perfect," Cain said. "While he was the dentist at Angola I never had one letter about poor treatment."
Cannon was buried in a coffin made by offenders at Angola, but the offenders paid for the materials on top of the work, Vannoy said. He added that he has never heard of the offenders volunteering to cover the materials for anyone else.
"That's how much love and respect (the inmates) had for that man," Vannoy said.
Outside of his work, Cannon had five children with his wife, Dorothy "Dot" Cannon. The two married during his freshman year at LSU. His friend Richard Lamb shared several "Billyisms" that Cannon instilled in his children and grandchildren as they grew up: take care of your siblings, get an education and push yourself to go farther than you think you can go.
After more than an hour of reminiscing over Cannon's life, his Angola-made casket was wheeled out of the PMAC to the LSU fight song and loaded into a hearse with a salute from the Department of Corrections Honor Guard, a blend of Cannon's passions and families.
Editor's Note: Advocate staff reporter Grace Toohey contributed to this report.