Those growing up in Baton Rouge in the 1950s like me first fell in love with LSU football because of Billy Cannon. The excitement over Cannon and the 1958 national champions captivated the city and state.
The old scruffy river town and the state's proud university had never experienced such a rush of national attention since the days of Huey Long. Along with Cannon, with his James Dean looks, Paul Bunyan arms and world-class sprinter's speed, the Tigers boasted photogenic coach Paul Dietzel's innovative three-platoon system, including the celebrated defensive maniacs the Chinese Bandits.
The next year, 1959, Cannon won the Hesiman Trophy with his legendary 89-yard punt return against Ole Miss on a foggy Halloweeen night in Tiger Stadium. As an 8-year-old, I listened to it on the radio while my parents were at the game, my father in a natty suit, my Mom in heels, dress and a corsage. In those pre-tailgate days, men snuck whiskey into the game in small plastic flasks, with a gold top. Although the game matched the nation's No. 1 and No. 3 teams, the game was not televised. A movie crew captured Cannon's feat on grainy film, replayed every year, along with announcer J.C. Politiz's Cajun-flavored voice rising in delirium.
Spirits were dampened the next week with a 1-point loss at Tennessee, and Cannon's marvelous era ended with an anticlimactic loss to the Rebels in the Sugar Bowl.
I've had many people tell me that they remember listening to LSU games on the radio on Saturday nights. LSU's night games set it apart for years, a precursor to the present day TV extravaganzas. Cannon was the first LSU player who gained national attention at the dawn of the TV era, where LSU was also a pioneer, setting up lights in Tiger Stadium bright enough for color TV. In just a few years, not broadcasting a game like the LSU-Ole Miss battle was unthinkable.
Cannon, after years of refusing offers to tell his story, finally agreed to do a book with Baton Rouge writer Charles N. deGravelles. Published in October by LSU Press, "Billy Cannon, a Long, Long Run," is an entertaining read, especially for longtime LSU fans. Cannon's voice echoes throughout the book, telling his story from his early childhood in Mississippi to his first brush with fame at Istrouma High School in north Baton Rouge, to his glory days at LSU and solid NFL career, followed by his successful dental practice and family life, ruined by his conviction for counterfeiting and redemption as the chief dentist at the Louisiana Penitentiary at Angola. A cast of Baton Rouge characters who befriended Cannon over the years rise again, including the weight-training pioneer Alvin Roy and corrupt Teamsters boss Edward Grady Partin.
The book reveals that behind the glamorous facade of the 1958 and 1959 teams, Cannon often clashed with Dietzel. It also recalls the names of half-forgotten LSU heroes besides Cannon, such as Warren Rabb, Max Fugler, Scooter Purvis and others.
Despite a couple of editing glitches and narrative contradictions, deGravelles with his matter-of-fact prose gives a revealing portrait of Cannon. He overly relies on Cannon quotes, which range from charming and insightful to tedious. Cannon's good but less than stellar pro career is perfunctorially related. Cannon's struggles to gain his dental and orthodontics degrees in the off-season show a man of heroic ambition and dedication.
The book also honestly reveals Cannon's dark side. As a high school student, Cannon shook down gays and men visiting prostititutes, leading to a publicized arrest. Later came the counterfeiting case which shattered his reputation and long-delayed his induction into the College Football Hall of Fame. Cannon also deserves a spot in the pro football hall, but that increasingly seems unlikely.
The closing Sugar Bowl debacle behind him, Cannon in a meeting beneath the old New Orleans stadium signed with the Houston Oilers of the nascent American Football League, bringing about a well-publicized legal conflict with the Los Angeles Rams, whose GM Pete Rozelle had already signed Cannon to a contract. Cannon's big-money deal with the Oilers was the first step in the AFL's successful challenge to the lords of the NFL, eventually leading to the leagues merging. That story is one of several that deGravelles tells well, at last giving a factual record to events long tinted by half-truths.
Another of the book's high points is deGravelles' account of how Cannon got embroiled in the counterfeiting money scheme, resulting from investing too heavily in real estate deals that turned sour. DeGravelles also shows Cannon at his best in reforming the medical program, particularly dentistry, at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola. Another strong part of the book is deGravelles' portrait of Baton Rouge, especially the gritty Istrouma area in the shadow of the now Exxon Mobil oil refinery and other industrial plants along the Misssippi River. In my youth, it was known as Standard Oil, where my uncle worked as an engineer and many others I knew of held jobs. Standard Oil's importance led to our elementary school boast that Baton Rouge was on the Soviet Union's top 10 list for nuclear attack.
DeGravelles' book, while too narrowly focused to have significant interest outside of LSU supporters, sheds light on aspects of the Cannon story long shrouded in half-truths, myths and rumors. He falters in not making an effort to connect Cannon's fame to LSU's recent success. Nor does he look much into broader social movements, such as the civil rights struggle and the eventual rise of black athletes.
He does succeed admirably in showing Cannon's complex personality. Cannon, now in his 70s, is a true Baton Rouge character, embodying the Red Stick's raw energy, impulsive violence, entrepreneurial drive, insularity, native intelligence and friendly, compassionate spirit. Despite his flaws, Cannon comes through as heroic. With his combination of speed, power, size and strength, Cannon deserves a place among mythical athletes like Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, Bo Jackson and Herschel Walker. Anyone who saw him play, or run track, will never forget him. Forever, LSU. Forever, Billy Cannon.