BATON ROUGE, La. — Halloween marks the 60th anniversary of the legendary Billy Cannon run, one of the most unforgettable plays in LSU football history. During the Tigers’ game against Ole Miss on Oct. 31, 1959, Cannon returned a punt 89 yards for a touchdown against the Rebels, leading LSU to a 7-3 victory. In 2010, former Channel 4 sports director Jim Henderson remembered that memorable night in interviews with Cannon (who won the Heisman Trophy that season), his coach Paul Dietzel, former LSU teammates and Ole Miss opponents.
The play earned Billy Cannon immortality and the Heisman trophy - in some ways, one in the same.
For LSU, the footage of it is as precious as the Holy Grail. For Ole Miss, it is the cruelest Halloween prank history could ever have played – one that’s exhumed every October 31st, a haunting highlight which refuses to die.
They can laugh about it now, as they did when we visited with them: Billy Cannon and his coach Paul Dietzel, surrounded by Ole Miss Rebels who have reluctantly come to appreciate the bittersweet taste of their own slice of immortality the play provided as well.
Just as digital has replaced Kodachrome, Kodachrome replaced black and white. A memory 60 years old can’t be restored; it should only be revisited. And so we gathered some of the principals to take us back six decades to that time, to that moment: Jake Gibbs punting on 3rd and 17 from his own 42. Billy Cannon waiting. Paul Dietzel watching.
“It was kind of end over end, the ball went 47 yards in the air and it hit and you’d think the ground would be soft…it was just hit and scoop, out of bounds, but that thing bounced straight up in the air,” Gibbs said.
Dietzel had a rule: field no punt inside the 15, for fear of fumbling.
“The ball takes a bounce, and I saw Billy Cannon, he was just kind of eyeing it up and I thought, “No, Billy! No, no, no,” Dietzel said.
“I don’t care if I had been on the goal line, with the run I’d made the time before, I was going to try to take it back,” Cannon said. “But it didn’t take a math student to look up at that clock and see we’re running out of time, and this thing ain’t getting any easier,” Cannon said. “Then the ball makes a block in there, takes three of them off, they had hands on me.”
“He took off and after he cleared about three or four people, it changed from no, no, no to go, go, go,” Dietzel said.
And go he did, with the punter Gibbs the last man standing in his way, momentarily
“I tried to run him out of bounds and I made a mistake, hit him up high and of course you know, 6’2”, 215, running as fast as he was, he just shook me off like I was a little puppy,” Gibbs said.
Cannon never saw the footage of the run for 10 years after it happened. He’s seen it hundreds of times since of course. Though it was one of countless highlights in an Illustrious career, he still embraces it like a first born.
Life got far more complicated for Billy Cannon afterward. Some decisions off the field were punished with far more regret than those on the field were rewarded but of both his life and the play that will survive it, he says, “I’ve had a hell of a run, a hell of a run.”
Editor’s note: Paul Dietzel died in 2013. Billy Cannon died in 2018.
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