Dave McCarty was in Germany this week when he heard over the Armed Forces Radio station that Billy Cannon, his teammate on the 1958 national championship team at Louisiana State University, had been arrested last Saturday with five other men in Baton Rouge and charged with participating in a counterfeiting scheme.
McCarty bought all the back papers he could when he returned to Lake Charles, La., where he works for an insurance company, and read with absolute disbelief, wondering why Cannon, 46, the Heisman Trophy winner in 1959 and a successful Baton Rouge orthodontist, would be arrested on charges involving what Assistant U.S. Attorney Rand Miller described as "one of the largest" seizures of counterfeit money in the nation's history.
According to Miller, there was approximately $5 million in $100 counterfeit bills wrapped in Seal-a-Meal packages and stuffed into two giant Igloos buried on Cannon's property off Jones Creek Road in Baton Rouge. Cannon has been charged with conspiring to possess and deal in counterfeit $100 bills.
To people who knew Cannon, his arrest just didn't make sense.
"When he was in college, Billy drove an old car," said McCarty, who coached at LSU for 17 years under former head coach Charles McClendon. "He wasn't really all that close to the guys because he didn't live in the dorm. He was married when he was a freshman and had three baby girls by the time he was a senior. He lived on the other side of town, on the north side. He never even wore fancy clothes. He didn't seem to like dressing up."
On Saturday, Cannon tried to plead guilty to the charges against him. But U.S. District Judge Frank Polozola, a catcher on the LSU baseball team in 1961-62, denied that request and gave him until today to reconsider.
According to news service reports, Cannon has agreed to testify against others in the case in return for special consideration. Papers signed by Miller said Cannon will waive indictment and plead guilty to a single charge of conspiracy and possession of counterfeit $100 bills.
Cannon, who testified before a federal grand jury yesterday in Baton Rouge, would not comment afterward. His attorney, Robert Buck Kleinpeter said he knew nothing of any plea bargaining. He was asked if his client would plead guilty today.
"There won't be nothing different," Kleinpeter said.
The newspaper photographs of Cannon leaving the courthouse last Saturday showed him in rumpled blue jeans and a cowboy shirt that plainly showed the prodigious girth of his belly. There was a cigar poking up from his breast pocket and a federal agent holding on to his arm. He didn't look at all like the halfback who ran a punt back 89 yards against Ole Miss on Halloween night in 1959, when LSU was No. 1 in the country and Ole Miss No. 2.
That was a spooky night--foggy and with humidity that could make the skin peel if you ran your thumbnail across it--and Cannon would make it haunt every Cajun boy to ever watch the fuzzy black-and-white film clip and dream of playing football in Tiger Stadium.
It would haunt boys like Benji Thibodeaux, who played 20 years after the Halloween night run and still heard stories about that '58 team and Cannon, the son of a dormitory chief custodian. Even in the dormitory game room, where Thibodeaux and his teammates shot pool after workouts, there were pictures of Billy Cannon on the walls.
When Thibodeaux went to practice, walking through the players gate in Tiger Stadium, the first thing he saw was a giant bronze placard--the size of a plyboard sheet--staring down on him and on everybody who would ever try to meet the standards set by Cannon and the '58 team.
Sometimes you could see a stadium custodian cleaning the list of names on the placard with an oil cloth and grumbling about the team that won it all a full year before Thibodeaux's birth. Billy Cannon's name always seemed cleanest, brightest, the one that immediately caught your eye when you looked up there. "When you say Billy Cannon," Thibodeaux said, "what you're saying is LSU. He was always representative of the LSU athlete."
One of the names on that placard is J.W. Brodnax, who goes by "Red" and who was Cannon's blocking back. Since those heyday years, Brodnax has fallen on hard times. His wife is ill and he's out of work; there are five kids to clothe and feed. He often wishes he could go back to 1958 and start all over again. "I'd do it different," he said. He wonders if Cannon wishes the same.
It's been years since Brodnax has seen and visited with Cannon. Years ago, when Cannon was playing with the Oilers and Brodnax worked for the St. Regis Bag Company, they met in Houston at Cannon's house and had a long talk. Brodnax left feeling good. Cannon always made him feel good. When Brodnax got into an automobile accident in South Louisiana, Cannon, an orthodontist, promised he'd work on his teeth. "I guess I won't go now," Brodnax said. "Billy's got his hands full with all this."
All this is a lot. Before the arrest, Cannon spent Saturday afternoon at the Jefferson Downs Race Track in Kenner, a suburb of New Orleans. He had owned a $120,000 condominium near the backstretch but it was seized for a sheriff's sale a few months ago, according to published reports. The East Baton Rouge clerk of court's office reportedly had ordered Cannon to pay $246,925 on four promissory notes to a New Orleans bank. The bank held 23 such notes.
Yesterday, the New Orleans civil sheriff's office held a sale of an apartment complex seized after Cannon and his business partners failed to make mortgage payments on the property, which had a collateral mortgage note of $1 million, according to a wire service report.
One thing about Cannon, his friends say: if he liked you he'd do all that he could for you. He'd help you financially even when he himself was down. According to Jimmy Field, a Baton Rouge attorney, Cannon "saw potential in a young man named Wayne Stabiler and helped him start a draperies business. Billy gave him a loan and didn't ask for any part of the business. He got him on his feet simply because he thought highly of the young man."
When Field visited Cannon at his home earlier this week he told him how sorry he was and that he would pray for him. Field played quarterback for LSU the year after Cannon left Baton Rouge for the Oilers. A few years ago, when he represented Cannon, Field said he worked out the bill of sale for the rural property where, according to a prosecutor, $3 million of the estimated $5 million in counterfeit bills was discovered. When Field heard the news of Cannon's arrest, there was a knot like somebody's fist lodged in his throat.
"Billy's problem," said Field, who often recruited for LSU with Cannon, "was that he was too loyal. He was a hero and he was vulnerable. He did a lot of work for people and charged them nothing. But you never hear about all that. I think we sometimes forget that our heroes are human beings."
Ellis A. (Fuzzy) Brown, Cannon's high school principal, said "Cannon was just like any other boy; he made good grades." Brown's twin brother, "Big Fuzz," coached Cannon and delivered the speech when Cannon was inducted into the Louisiana High School Hall of Fame. Now officials of the National Football Foundation said a decision to induct Cannon into the College Football Hall of Fame has been deferred until the resolution of the allegations against him. "Billy should pay for his crime if he's guilty," Brown said. "But if he earned the Hall of Fame honor, and they all thought he earned it, then he should be inducted."
Controversy is nothing new to Cannon. When he was a senior in college he signed an NFL contract with Pete Rozelle, then general manager of the Los Angeles Rams, a month before the 1960 Sugar Bowl. For a better offer, one that would make him the first $100,000 player in professional football, Cannon turned around and signed a contract with the Houston Oilers of the new AFL, under the goal posts in old Tulane Stadium and only moments after the final game of his college career. After the case was tied up in the courts for months, a judge ruled that Cannon was Houston's property and said he was a naive country boy and had been taken advantage of.
Three years ago, Cannon wired all the major league baseball teams that his son, Billy Cannon Jr., a shortstop, was not interested in baseball (over college football) for less than a $250,000 signing bonus. The New York Yankees drafted him in the third round anyway, but Cannon Jr. signed with Texas A&M and LSU fans felt cheated; their hero could have hurt them more only if Billy Jr. had signed with SEC rival Ole Miss.
"Billy just didn't want Billy Jr. to have to go 89 yards for a touchdown every time he touched the ball," said Don (Scooter) Purvis, Cannon's former teammate at LSU and a coach there for nine years. "You can't blame a guy for that. In his heart he only wanted the best for his son."
When he was at LSU, there was nothing but the best for Billy Cannon Sr.
"Cannon had a dead-head job driving a water truck over the summer," one of Cannon's friends said. "He got paid a ton of money because he was Billy Cannon, everybody's hero. Now, a lot of people are saying they're surprised by all this, but I'm not. Neither are lots of other people who know Billy like I know Billy."
Another of Cannon's close friends, Jimmy Lear, said "Billy's a great person. If you honored him, he'd never forget you. It doesn't matter who you are or what you were. He was always good to his people."
Lear, who works for a concrete company in Baton Rouge, prepped at Catholic High School, a cross-town rival of Istrouma High, where Cannon went to school. They first met on the football field and have been "like blood brothers" ever since.
Over the last week, Lear has visited Cannon at his home almost every day, whiling away the hours and talking about everything and nothing. There's a lot to think about when there's all that time. You want to say the right thing. The phone rings "maybe 10,000 times a day" and friends come over by the dozens. "I think if Billy was wrong in any way," said Lear, "then he should pay. There's no question that he feels the same way."
"We expect our heroes to be perfect," Field said, "and on the track and football field, Billy Cannon was that. He was so much better and so much stronger than the rest of us. It seems he could do anything."
When Field was a freshman at LSU, he and his friends would go out to the track and watch Cannon run. Cannon ran a 9.4 100-yard dash and could throw a 16-pound shot put 54 feet. He was a two-time all-America, a Heisman Trophy winner, yet still he had time for you. He was always cutting up, the court jester, working hard to be one of the guys.
"Our heroes are most vulnerable," LSU Head Coach Jerry Stovall said. "From the moment he first played in Tiger Stadium, it seems Billy Cannon was under the scrutiny of everybody in the world."
Now, with television stations showing the clip of Billy Cannon's Halloween night run past those Rebels, we can only sit back and watch and wonder and remember when.