When LSU called Billy Cannon the day after his 80th birthday this past August to tell him the school was planning a statue in his honor, Cannon amazingly was taken aback.
“It’s not something you expect,” he said then.
You can admire Cannon’s humility. But if anyone deserved a statue for their LSU athletic exploits, it was William Abb Cannon, who died Sunday at age 80.
Nationally, LSU’s best known sports figures are probably “Pistol” Pete Maravich and Shaquille O’Neal. But on the home front, Cannon is the legend of legends.
Nearly 60 years after he stepped off the field at old Tulane Stadium after his final college game in the 1960 Sugar Bowl, Cannon remains the standard by which all LSU football players are judged. It is easy to get all hyperbolic over the latest five-star recruit as being the best this or that. But there are still plenty of Tiger fans who will look at the helium-filled recruiting rankings and huff, with justification, “He’s great, but he’s no Billy Cannon.”
They would be right.
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In a day when many of his linemen weighed less than 200 pounds, Cannon was like a god who descended from Mount Olympus to enthrall the mortals. At 6-foot-1, 210 pounds, able to run a sub-10 second 100-yard dash, Cannon could undoubtedly still play in today's game. On offense or defense. Probably the only other player from LSU’s 1958 national championship team who would fit into that category was Johnny Robinson, who by all rights already should be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
In high school, legend has it that at what was then known as the USL Relays, Cannon beat his best rival by 20 yards in the 220-yard dash while wearing his sweatsuit. One year at the state track championships, Cannon picked up a shot put, heaved it like a baseball and launched it a state record 57 feet, 4 inches.
At the end of the 1988 movie “Eight Men Out” about the 1919 Black Sox scandal, one of Shoeless Joe Jackson’s teammates, Buck Weaver, goes to see Jackson play a minor league game under an assumed name. Someone in the stands asks him if he ever saw Jackson play.
“He was the best,” Weaver says. “He could run, hit, throw. He was the best.”
Cannon was LSU’s Shoeless Joe. He was a great running back. He was a great kick returner, as evidenced by the most legendary play in LSU sports history, his 89-yard punt return on Halloween night 1959 against Ole Miss. He could throw, passing to Mickey Mangham for the only score of LSU’s 1959 Sugar Bowl victory against Clemson.
“I didn’t throw it,” Cannon said that day. “The Lord did.”
Reactions of shock and sadness poured in from across the football world Sunday after the death of LSU football legend Billy Cannon at age 80.
He could play defense to boot. In that era, a team’s best players played on both sides of the ball. Cannon played on LSU’s “White Team” in 1958-59, Paul Dietzel’s best two way-playing 11 in his three-platoon system that also included the “Go Team” that specialized on offense and the “Chinese Bandits” who specialized on defense.
Few remember it, but after Cannon scored on that punt return against Ole Miss, the Rebels had time for one last drive down 7-3. On the game’s final play, Warren Rabb and Cannon stopped Ole Miss quarterback Doug Elmore on the goal line to preserve the victory and Cannon’s immortal return.
“If they don’t stop him,” late LSU sports information director Paul Manasseh once told me, “no one remembers Cannon’s run.”
They did. And they do. And they will, as long as LSU football is played. And then long after that.
Cannon became LSU’s Shoeless Joe in another way when he was ensnared in a counterfeiting scandal of his own making. It cost Cannon 2½ years in prison and decades before the 1959 Heisman Trophy winner took his rightful place in the College Football Hall of Fame.
In 1988, at a game celebrating the 30th anniversary of the 1958 team, there was considerable speculation as to how Cannon would be received in his first appearance in Tiger Stadium after his release.
He got a standing ovation.
Certainly there have been those who never forgave Cannon, but he paid what debt he owed. Working for years as a dentist at Angola State Penitentiary, Cannon not only fixed countless inmates’ teeth but certainly changed lives in the way his life changed after his bizarre transgression back in the early 1980s. The crimes he no doubt kept from happening surely outweigh his own.
The man with the superhuman athletic gifts who was seduced by that most human of failings, greed, eventually returned to the LSU fold. For his last 30 years, as the autumn of his life turned to winter, he took his rightful place as the Tiger of Tigers.
“LSU meant more to our dad than anyone could ever know,” the Cannon family said Sunday in a statement through LSU. “It wasn’t the awards or the acknowledgements on the football field. It was always the love of the LSU family that meant the world to him and to all of us. There is simply no other place on earth where so many come together to love and support their own like LSU.
“His life was intertwined with the purple and gold, and he wouldn’t have had it any other way.”
A private ceremony has been announced for Billy Cannon, who died in his sleep Sunday at the age of 80. Plans for a public ceremony for later i…
LSU athletic director Joe Alleva said that Cannon got to see and approve the statue the school has commissioned of him before he died. The hope is the statue will be ready in time to be dedicated this football season.
Sadly, Cannon didn’t live to see that day. But unlike the tragic figure in A.E. Housman’s “To an Athlete Dying Young,” his is one name that did not die before the man.