Billy Cannon, a bruising running back who led an 11-0 LSU team to the 1958 national championship and won the 1959 Heisman Trophy, then years later served time in federal prison for his role in a counterfeiting scheme, died Sunday at age 80.
Cannon delivered one of the more memorable plays in college football history with his "Halloween Run" against No. 3 Ole Miss in 1959, an 89-yard punt return for a touchdown in which he broke tackles from nearly every defender. It was LSU's 19th straight win, and a few weeks later, Cannon became LSU's first and only Heisman Trophy winner.
Cannon, also a defensive back in college, and Warren Rabb combined to make a game-saving tackle on fourth down from the 1-yard line with 18 seconds remaining to keep Ole Miss out of the end zone and preserve a 7-3 win in an iconic 1959 game between the SEC powerhouses. Cannon finished with just 598 yards and five touchdowns during his Heisman Trophy season, but his flair for the dramatic won over the Heisman voters.
"The thing that clinched the Heisman for me was that I made a play or two in a big game," Cannon later said.
Billy Cannon passed away peacefully in his home early Sunday morning. He was 80 years old. The entire #LSU family mourns with the Cannons and his loved ones. He will never be forgotten. #20 pic.twitter.com/pCcCbPTmEG— LSU Football (@LSUfootball) May 20, 2018
A diaper with Cannon's No. 20 was hoisted on a flagpole at Tiger Stadium when his second daughter was born (he was still at LSU at the time). The university retired his jersey soon after the 1959 season.
"Today is profoundly sad for all of us. We know the thoughts and prayers of so many who were touched by my father's life are with him and with us. There are no words to express how grateful we are for the outpouring of support from all over the country. It is overwhelming and comforting," the Cannon family said in a statement.
"LSU meant more to our dad than anyone could ever know. 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."
He was a transcendent player at 6-foot-1 and 225 pounds who could bench-press well over 400 pounds, but also possessed track speed.
"I've never seen that combination of speed and strength in anyone else, including Bo Jackson," former LSU track coach Boots Garland told The New York Times in 2003.
Cannon was the first overall pick in the 1960 NFL draft and also a first-round territorial pick in the 1960 AFL draft, triggering a contract dispute that wound up in court.
Cannon initially signed with the NFL's Los Angeles Rams in November of his senior season at LSU. But after the Sugar Bowl, Cannon signed another contract with the AFL's Houston Oilers. The Rams sued and said he was bound by their contract, but the judge ruled against them saying they took advantage of Cannon's naivete. He later finalized his contract with the Oilers, becoming pro football's first $100,000 player.
He played professionally from 1960 to '70 with the Oilers, Oakland Raiders and Kansas City Chiefs. A two-time AFL All-Star, he led the league in rushing and all-purpose yards in 1961 and was the MVP of the first two AFL championship games, both won by the Oilers. He was moved to fullback and later tight end after being traded to the Raiders and won another league championship in 1967.
Cannon returned to school during the offseason and set up a successful dental practice after he retired from football, but in 1983 he was charged with participating in a $6 million counterfeiting scheme. He served nearly three years at a federal prison in Texarkana, Texas.
Cannon was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1983, but the Hall of Fame's honors court rescinded the selection following his guilty plea. Cannon was reinducted in 2008.
"I did the crime, and I did the time. I haven't had a speeding ticket since," Cannon told The Associated Press in 2008.
In 1995, Cannon became the resident dentist at the maximum security Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, which includes mostly hardened criminals serving life sentences.
"Way back, they asked me if I could go up there and help them. I went there with the idea of spending a year, and I've been there ever since. I feel like I'm doing something very worthwhile," Cannon told the New York Daily News in 2008.
William Abb Cannon was born Aug. 2, 1937, in Philadelphia, Mississippi.