BATON ROUGE - Billy Cannon's long, circuitous run that brought him fame in football and wealth in business, as well as the depths of prison, but finished strong like his mythical Halloween Run for No. 1 LSU in 1959, has ended.
Cannon, 80, died peacefully Sunday morning at his country home outside of St. Francisville, 35 miles north of Baton Rouge, with his wife Dorothy of more than 60 years at his side, according to family. He had been suffering with heart ailments as he was hospitalized briefly after a stroke five years ago and had a pacemaker.
"It means a lot to know he was so loved," his daughter Bunnie Cannon said Sunday. "The last 10 or 15 years, people really reached out to him. He knew they loved him."
Cannon is survived by Dorothy, or Dot, whom he married while they were freshmen at LSU in 1956, and five children - girls Terry, Gina, Bunnie and Dara and son Billy Jr.
"LSU meant more to our dad than anyone could ever know," Bunnie said. "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."
Born on Aug. 2, 1937 in Philadelphia, Mississippi, Cannon moved to blue collar North Baton Rouge with his family when he was young. He soon became a football and track star in the mid-1950s at Istrouma High School near the Standard Oil refinery that forged the city's economy. He considered returning home to Ole Miss for college, but decided on LSU and led the Tigers to the 1958 national championship and the school's first and only perfect season (of more than three games) in 124 years of football at 11-0.
Cannon threw a 9-yard touchdown pass on a halfback option and kicked the extra point for the 7-0 win over Clemson in the Sugar Bowl at Tulane Stadium in New Orleans on Jan. 1, 1959, to put a bow on that championship season. He became LSU's first and only Heisman Trophy winner the next year as a senior in 1959 when the Tigers narrowly missed another national championship, finishing 9-2 after playing 13 consecutive games at No. 1 from Sept. 27, 1958, through Nov. 7, 1959 - easily the longest top rung run in school history.
Cannon gained 1,867 yards on 359 carries for a 5.2-yard average with 19 touchdowns in his three-year varsity career at LSU, and he was the consummate all-around performer, including as a linebacker/defensive back in this day of two-way players. He caught 31 passes in his career for another 522 yards and two touchdowns. He returned 31 punts for 349 yards and one iconic touchdown while returning 22 kickoffs for 616 yards and a touchdown. Cannon also kicked and punted and sold concessions in the stadium - the latter while he was in high school. Halfback option passes were not novelties at the time, and he completed 12 of 26 of those in his career for 118 yards.
"Anything he tried, he was the best at," halfback Hart Bourque, who was Cannon's backup in 1958-59, said in "A Long, Long Run" - the 2015 biography of Cannon. "It was part of who he was."
Never was that more clear than the night Cannon became immortalized in LSU history on a hot, muggy, October 31, 1959, in Tiger Stadium when the No. 1 Tigers (6-0, 2-0 Southeastern Conference) hosted No. 3 Ole Miss (6-0, 3-0 SEC). Late in the fourth quarter with Ole Miss up 3-0, Cannon - ever the rebel - took matters into his own hands as legends do and disobeyed Coach Paul Dietzel's edict not to field punts deep in LSU territory. He caught it on a bounce to boot at his 11-yard line, broke a half a dozen or more tackles and weaved his way into the end zone for a 7-3 lead that stood only after he assisted late in the game on a goal line stand on defense.
"I kept yelling, 'No Billy! No. No. No,'" the late Dietzel recalled before his death in 2013 of the Halloween Run. "Then after he broke in the clear, I started yelling, 'Go! Go! Go!"
The run helped Cannon win the Heisman. He accepted it on Dec. 9, 1959, in New York City from Vice President Richard M. Nixon while standing between him and actress Jill St. John. She would go on to become a Bond girl in "Diamonds Are Forever" in 1971. Nixon and Cannon would break federal laws in the 1970s and '80s and fall mightily out of office.
Cannon was drafted as the first overall pick of the NFL Draft in 1960 by the Los Angeles Rams, but decided to sign instead with the Houston Oilers, who also selected him in the first round of the AFL Draft.
Cannon was part of two AFL championship teams with the Oilers in 1960 and '61 before converting to a tight end with the Oakland Raiders from 1964-69 and catching two passes in Super Bowl II on Jan. 14, 1968, in a loss to Green Bay. He finished his playing career in 1970 with the Kansas City Chiefs.
Always naturally a good student, Cannon studied in the off-seasons to become an orthodontist and soon had a thriving practice in Baton Rouge after retiring from football. Then he tried his hand at real estate, had fast success and kept buying property along with some horses. When the economy lost yardage in the early 1980s, Cannon found himself overextended, dealing with gambling debts and mixing and dealing with questionable characters all while seeing dental patients.
"Looking back, I was too heavily invested," Cannon said in "A Long, Long Run," which did not gloss over what at the time was one of the largest counterfeiting schemes in United States history, and Cannon was directly involved.
"It was typical Billy Cannon. Everything had to be more and bigger," Cannon said in the book.
When Secret Service agents raided his home in the Sherwood Forest suburb of Baton Rouge on Saturday, July 9, 1983, Cannon was at the Fairgrounds horse track in New Orleans. He had seen the agents for months. They were on his cleats. He knew they were coming. He just didn't know when.
Cannon pleaded guilty to federal counterfeiting charges involving five others in a major operation that printed $6 million worth of $100 bills, many of which Cannon buried on some of his properties. He was sentenced to five years in prison in 1983.
"If you're asking me why I did this, I still don't know why," Cannon said in federal court. "What I did was wrong, terribly wrong."
He would serve two and a half years at the low security Federal Correctional Institution in Texarkana, Texas - an hour north of Shreveport, site of his last Istrouma High football game on Dec. 9, 1955, at a time when Elvis Presley frequently performed at the "Louisiana Hayride" in the city's Municipal Memorial Auditorium. Cannon shook up Fair Park High in State Fair Stadium that night in a 40-6 win for the state title as he rushed for 169 yards with 24-yard touchdown and scored on an 83-yard catch and run.
"I had everything," Cannon said. "Things came to me easy - too easy sometimes. That's why I wanted to do the book. I wanted young people to read it - young men - because there are going to be temptations and trials, and you're going to have problems making decisions. My hope is that when they read the book, they'll take the high road. I didn't."
He began serving time in Texarkana in September of 1983, just as his namesake Billy Cannon, Jr., a highly recruited multi-sport athlete himself from Broadmoor High in Baton Rouge, was beginning his senior season at Texas A&M as a linebacker and kick returner. He was a first round draft choice of the Dallas Cowboys in 1984, but had to retire after one season because of a back injury. By the time the elder Cannon was released from prison in the summer of 1986 on good behavior, his son's career had been over for nearly two years.
Cannon returned to his orthodontist practice, but it struggled and he eventually closed the office before a return to prison in 1995 - but as the the director of dentistry at of all places, the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola. Contacts through Cannon's old friend, former LSU track coach Boots Garland who died two years ago, and then state senator Mike Foster, who would become governor from 1996-2004, landed Cannon as head of dentistry at Angola.
And wasn't it ironic? When then Angola warden Burl Cain said to Cannon in the job interview, "I hear you've got a lot of experience," Cannon wasn't sure if was talking about prison or teeth and said, "Which side of the razor wire do you want it on?"
Cannon moved into a second home on a farm outside St. Francisville for a closer commute to the prison - aka "The Farm" - and to raise thoroughbred horses. He eventually became medical director at Angola and directed a complete overhaul of its decaying medical and dental facilities. He regularly saw patients until his retirement only last January.
"This was a man who weathered one of the greatest challenges in life - a fall from grace," said "A Long, Long Run" author, Charles N. deGravelles, an ex journalist turned prison minister at Angola who met Cannon on "The Walk" between cell buildings shortly after Cannon started working there.
"He did his time, and he recovered from it with humility," deGravelles said. "And he became a prison reformer - systemically by revamping the medical facilities at Angola and on a personal level in his own way with the inmates in his dentist's chair. He was an inspiration to many of them because they saw he got out and made something of himself again. He gave them good advice. They would come see him when they got out, and he'd tell them to keep their nose clean and not come back."
Cannon told deGravelles that when his first return to dentistry failed in Baton Rouge, he was embarrassed and kept a very low profile.
"Prison got him out of his prison," deGravelles said.
"Life is for living, and I've lived a good one," Cannon said when his book came out in 2015. "I made some mistakes. Some people make small mistakes. I made bigger ones."
Cannon's comeback was recognized by the College Football Hall of Fame, which inducted him in 2008 - more than a quarter of a century after he was first elected, but impeached because of the counterfeiting charges and conviction at the time.
"It's the old penthouse to the outhouse story," Cannon said at the Hall of Fame ceremony. "I thank the people who voted for me initially, and I really thank the people who voted for me the second time. To be in this Hall and to be associated with the great players who have played this game in the past, and to be associated with the great players who will play this game in the future, it's just an unbelievable thrill."
Cannon's career reaped stacks of awards in addition to the Heisman and College Football Hall of Fame, such as the Associated Press, United Press International and Sporting News Players of the Year in 1959, No. 20 retirement in 1959, UPI and Sporting News Player of the Year in 1958, consensus All-America in 1958 and '59, SEC Player of the Year in 1958 and '59, LSU Athletic Hall of Fame in 1975 and the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame in 1976.
But the one with perhaps the longest shelf life is the grainy film clip of his storied Halloween Run. It is still played on television sportscasts around Louisiana each Halloween and was run continuously on Tiger Stadium's giant video board Sunday. For decades throughout Louisiana, dads often would not take their children trick or treating until after the 6 p.m. sports.
LSU coach Ed Orgeron, 56, has mentioned watching the run as a child in LaRose.
"Billy Cannon was LSU football through and through," Orgeron said in a LSU release Sunday. "He was a legend. He will be missed and never forgotten."
Cannon never ventured far from LSU over the decades and returned more and more in recent years for reunions, signings and various honors such as when his No. 20 was hung from Tiger Stadium in 2008.
"He was in a very good place these last years," deGravelles said.
"There may be no other figure in LSU sports who was more beloved and revered," LSU athletic director Joe Alleva said.
"To say that Billy Cannon was legendary is an understatement. His talent catapulted LSU athletics into the national limelight," LSU President F. King Alexander said.
"He loved going back to LSU on game days and visiting with the players," deGravelles said.
Cannon was at the LSU-Ole Miss game on Nov. 17, 2012, and spoke to LSU wide receiver/punt returner Odell Beckham, Jr., before the game. And guess what? In the Tigers' 41-35 win over the Rebels, Beckham returned a punt 89 yards for a go-ahead touchdown and 38-35 lead at the nine-minute mark of the fourth quarter just as Cannon did in 1959.
"Dr. Cannon was a mentor to me in my days at LSU, and he will be truly missed," tweeted former LSU and NFL running back Charles Alexander.
"RIP, Mr. Billy Cannon," tweeted former LSU running back Derrius Guice, who was just drafted by the NFL Washington Redskins. "It was for sure an honor to soak up everything we've talked about over the years. GOAT (Greatest of All Time)."
"An absolute legend," tweeted former LSU and NFL running back Jacob Hester, who was on the 2007 national championship team. "Billy Cannon was one of the greatest to ever put on a Tigers uniform. Rest in peace, No. 20."
A funeral open to the public will be Wednesday at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center at LSU with the visitation running from noon to 2 p.m. and the funeral from 2 p.m. to 3 p.m. There will be another more private ceremony for family and friends later in the week.
Cannon will soon be visible at all LSU home games. Plans for a Cannon statue on campus were approved by LSU's Hall of Fame committee last August.
"His life was intertwined with the purple and gold, and he wouldn't have had it any other way," Bunnie Cannon said.
"I talked to him on the phone a couple of weeks ago," deGravelles said. "I knew his health was declining, and now I know he called to say goodbye. One of the last things he told me was, 'I'm the last standing cannon."