LSU and AFL star Billy Cannon dies at 80


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.

18 responses to “LSU and AFL star Billy Cannon dies at 80

  1. Billy Cannon was one of Al Davis’ early reclamation projects. After he was traded by the Oilers to the Raiders, Davis switched him to TE where he was the 1st star at that position for the Silver & Black.


  2. That Ole Miss – LSU game would spur all kinds of rules changes today. No one wants to see an epic defensive battle any more. The game was played in Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge. It was raining and the field was muddy. Ole Miss was content to run two plays and punt on third down. The offenses were going nowhere and they had a better punter. That punter was the last guy who missed Cannon on that electrifying punt return. Every football fan in Louisiana has seen it hundreds of times. It’s played every Halloween … 🙂 GEAUX Tigers … RIP, Billy.

  3. Being a fan of college football, I’ve seen the famous punt return in 59 whenever LSU played on TV. ESPN played it all the time when LSU had a game. I’m surprised Hollywood didn’t make a movie about this guy. What a unique character, he later went on to be a dentist. And the counterfeiting, he wasn’t messing around. 6 million dollars in fake 100’s, stuffed in coolers that the feds watched him dig up. Heisman Trophy, local hero. The script is already written.

  4. On December 10, 1961, Billy Cannon had arguably the best fantasy football game of all time:

    Rushing – 216 yds, 3 TD
    Receiving – 5 rec, 114 yds, 2 TD

    That’s 63 fantasy points with standard scoring (68 with PPR). What a game!

  5. “#20 Dies on the 20th”

    BCannon was the most dynamic NCAA FB performer of my youth. His punt-return TD electrified that LSU game and season and he was the main reason i became an AFL fan early on when he signed with the Oilers. He was one of the last generation of truly “triple-threat halfbacks”.

    His career there coincided with the phoenix-like resurrection of George Blanda and when they both migrated to the S&B later in the ’60’s i became the “Raiderholic” i’m obliged to be to this day.

    Mr. Cannon wasn’t perfect, had his troubles with the law, but, as evidenced by my user name, he’ll always be a football *landmark* for this fan.

    RIP #20, Billy Cannon

  6. “Everybody’s All-American” was the movie based on the great Frank Deford book.
    RIP Billy.

  7. As an Ole Miss alum, I still wish we made that tackle on the punt return or break a tackle on the one yard line, but you have to respect ole Billy Cannon… Hotty Toddy Billy Cannon…

  8. As the author states, it’s impossible/improbable for kids today to grasp how great a player BC was. If there was a computer football game back at that time, he would rate out at 99 easily.

  9. Billy Cannon is one of the reasons college football is so beloved. Thank you for bringing so much fun and happiness to those of us who grew up loving the game.

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