Billy Cannon, who led the Louisiana State University football team to an undefeated season in 1958 and won the Heisman Trophy a year later as the nation’s top player, but who fell from grace in the 1980s when he went to prison as part of a counterfeiting ring, died May 20 at his home in St. Francisville, La. He was 80.
His death was announced by LSU. The cause was not disclosed.
Dr. Cannon, who also had an 11-year career in professional football and later became an orthodontist, was a two-time all-American and won the Heisman Trophy in large part because of a game-winning 89-yard punt return against archrival Mississippi, which remains one of the most electrifying moments in college football history.
Exceptionally fast and strong, the 6-foot-1, 210-pound Dr. Cannon had the perfect name for an athlete, and there seemed to be nothing he could not do. In track, he excelled in the unlikely tandem events of the shot put and sprints: He could run the 100-yard dash in 9.4 seconds — one-tenth of a second off the world record at the time.
“Blessed with a magnificent physique, tremendous speed and an apparently bottomless supply of gutty determination,” Roy Terrell wrote in Sports Illustrated in 1958, “LSU’s bowlegged left halfback may be the best college football player in America.”
On the gridiron, Dr. Cannon was a powerful runner who was also adept at blocking, passing and catching. He played safety and sometimes middle linebacker on defense and was his team’s punter, place kicker and primary kick returner. Sportswriters named him college football’s top offensive back of the 1950s — and also the decade’s top defensive back.
He averaged 5.2 yards a carry during his LSU career, scored 24 touchdowns and had 3,472 all-purpose yards as a runner, receiver, passer and kick returner. He had seven pass interceptions on defense.
Under Coach Paul Dietzel, the Tigers had an undefeated 10-0 season in 1958 and met Clemson in the Sugar Bowl. Dr. Cannon threw a touchdown pass on a halfback option, then kicked the extra point to give LSU a 7-0 victory. The Tigers were ranked No. 1 in the country.
In 1959, LSU and Mississippi faced each other on a damp and foggy Halloween night before 67,500 people at Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge. Both teams were unbeaten, with LSU ranked No. 1 and Ole Miss No. 3.
Mississippi led 3-0 on a first-half field goal, as the game turned into a defensive battle. In the fourth quarter, Mississippi quarterback Jake Gibbs punted deep into LSU territory.
Dr. Cannon caught the ball on a bounce at his 11-yard-line, eluded one tackler at the 20-yard-line and another at the 25. He bulled through a cluster of three Mississippi defenders between the 25 and 30 yard lines, leaving them sprawled on the ground.
He shifted to his right toward the sideline, then cut to his left to dodge another tackler at the 35. A teammate flattened another Mississippi player at the 40-yard-line, leaving only one more defender.
“Now I’m looking Jake Gibbs right in the eye,” Dr. Cannon recalled 50 years later to the Baton Rouge Advocate. He made a quick cut to his right toward the sideline, as Gibbs lunged and fell to the turf.
Seven Ole Miss players had their hands on Dr. Cannon but could not bring him down, as he galloped the final 50 yards to the end zone. He kicked the extra point to give LSU a 7-3 lead. The cheering lasted a solid two minutes.
“That was the greatest run I ever saw in football,” Dietzel said afterward.
There were still 10 minutes left to play, however, and Ole Miss mounted a steady drive, reaching the LSU 1-yard-line. On fourth down, backup quarterback Doug Elmore slanted off left tackle, where he was stopped by the middle linebacker — Dr. Cannon — and swarmed by the rest of the LSU defense to preserve the victory.
A week later, Dr. Cannon gained 122 yards against Tennessee, including a 26-yard touchdown run. But his team lost, 14-13, as he was tackled short of the goal line attempting a two-point conversion in the fourth quarter. LSU was stymied again in the Sugar Bowl in a rematch with Mississippi, losing 21-0.
At the end of Dr. Cannon’s college football career, his No. 20 jersey was retired, and he remains LSU’s only player to win the Heisman Trophy.
Billy Abb Cannon was born Aug. 2, 1937, in Neshoba County, Miss., and grew up in Baton Rouge. His father was a janitor at the university, his mother a homemaker.
Dr. Cannon grew up in a poor neighborhood, sold soft drinks at Tiger Stadium and was occasionally in trouble with the law in his teens. In high school, he became a devotee of weightlifting and led his football team to a state championship.
He married his high school sweetheart, Dorothy Dupuy, when he was a freshman at LSU. Survivors include his wife of 61 years, of St. Francisville; five children; eight grandchildren; and eight great-grandchildren.
During his senior season at LSU, Dr. Cannon secretly signed a $50,000 contract with the Los Angeles Rams’ general manager, Pete Rozelle, who later became commissioner of the National Football League. Dr. Cannon later signed a contract for more than $100,000 with the Houston Oilers of the new American Football League.
After a lawsuit, a federal judge declared the agreement with Rozelle and the Rams void. Dr. Cannon then joined the Oilers and became one of the AFL’s first stars, leading the league in rushing in 1961. He was later traded to the Oakland Raiders, where he became a standout tight end. He caught two passes in the second Super Bowl, against the Green Bay Packers, in 1968 before retiring from football in 1970.
In the offseason, Dr. Cannon studied dentistry at the University of Tennessee and Loyola University in Chicago, receiving two professional degrees. He later established an orthodontics practice in Baton Rouge and raised thoroughbred racehorses.
In 1983, he was arrested for involvement in a counterfeiting operation. Secret Service agents dug up $5 million in phony $100 bills on Dr. Cannon’s property, and he was charged with possession of counterfeit money and conspiracy.
He earned an estimated $300,000 a year from his dental practice but was reportedly in financial trouble from gambling debts and bad investments. He had been in dozens of lawsuits, most over unpaid bills. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to federal prison. He was released in 1986, after serving almost three years of a five-year term.
When Dr. Cannon was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1983, the honor was rescinded because of his conviction. He was eventually inducted in 2008.
A year later, on the 50th anniversary of his heroic touchdown against Mississippi, Dr. Cannon appeared on the field at Tiger Stadium, as a film of his 89-yard run was shown to 90,000 cheering fans.
“The people of Louisiana are very quick to love and also very quick to forgive,” he said.
In 1997, after declaring bankruptcy, Dr. Cannon found work as the chief of dentistry at Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola. He remained a popular figure with the inmates until his retirement in January.
“I did the crime, I did the time, and I haven’t had a problem since,” he told the Associated Press in 2009. “I get to talk to them all when they come in and when they leave. I say, ‘You know you can make it.’ And they say, ‘You made it Doc. We got a shot, don’t we?’ I say, ‘Don’t waste it.’ ”