Billy Cannon, a legendary Heisman Trophy winner at LSU who would later become an all-star in the American Football League, has died at the age of 80.
Cannon is best remembered for his career at LSU, where he led the Tigers to the national championship in 1958 and won the Heisman Trophy in 1959. His all-around contributions to the team were almost impossible for fans of today’s brand of football to comprehend: He was the team’s top runner, receiver, defensive back, punter, kicker, punt returner and kickoff returner. On Halloween in 1959, with LSU trailing 3-0, Cannon returned a punt 89 yards for a touchdown to give the Tigers a 7-3 lead in the fourth quarter. He then made the game-saving tackle on defense at the 1-yard line to preserve the victory.
Cannon was the undisputed top player in college football and coveted by both the NFL and the upstart AFL, and he signed contracts with both the NFL’s Rams and the AFL’s Houston Oilers. A legal battle ensued, and he persuaded a judge that Rams General Manager Pete Rozelle had tricked him into signing a contract he didn’t understand, freeing him to play in the AFL and give that league some newfound legitimacy.
With the Oilers Cannon made an instant impact, helping the Oilers get to the first AFL championship game and gaining 259 all-purpose yards in that game to become the game’s MVP. In 1961 Cannon led the AFL with 948 rushing yards and 2,043 all-purpose yards. Cannon would spend four years with the Oilers, six with the Raiders and one final season with the Chiefs.
For all his success on the field, Cannon had plenty of problems off the field. He was convicted of theft in high school, and after retiring from football he went to prison for counterfeiting.
Despite those off-field issues, however, Cannon was a beloved figure particularly in Louisiana, where he remains considered by many the greatest player ever to play at LSU. And his Halloween punt return will live as an LSU legend forever.