BATON ROUGE, La.— Billy Cannon, the gifted running back who won the Heisman Trophy for Louisiana State University in 1959 with a memorable Halloween night punt return touchdown against Mississippi, died Sunday. He was 80.
LSU said Cannon, the school’s only Heisman winner, died at his home in St. Francisville, La. The cause of death wasn’t immediately known.
Cannon led the Tigers to a national championship in 1958 and won the Heisman the following year, highlighted by his tackle-breaking 89-yard punt return that beat Ole Miss 7-3 and is still regularly shown on the video board at Tiger Stadium during LSU games.
“Nearly 60 years later, Louisianians still talk about that Halloween night,” Gov. John Bel Edwards said. “Billy’s legacy at LSU will live on for generations, and every time we enter Tiger Stadium, we’ll remember the impact he left on the players and fans who came after him.”
Cannon went on to a successful pro career with the Houston Oilers, the Oakland Raiders and the Kansas City Chiefs, and became a dentist after retiring from football. But life after football was far from smooth. He served 2 1/2 years in federal prison for counterfeiting in the mid-1980s after a series of bad investments and debts left him broke.
He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2008, though it came on the second time he was voted in. The first time was in 1983, but the honor was rescinded because of his legal issues.
After leaving prison, it took Cannon a while to put his life back together. He eventually was hired to be the dentist in the Louisiana State Penitentiary. His efforts at the prison were credited with bringing quality care to inmates that had long been lacking. He served as the dentist at the prison until retiring in January. The inmates would call him “Legend.”
Cannon didn’t hide from his failings. During LSU’s 50-year celebration of his Halloween night runback, he looked over a podium filled with reporters’ recording devices and quipped he hadn’t seen that many microphones since the FBI was investigating him.
As a football player, there was almost nothing but glory for Cannon.
The Philadelphia, Miss., native was a standout on both sides of the ball for LSU as a sophomore in 1957. As a junior, he passed for a touchdown and kicked the extra point in the Tigers’ 7-0 Sugar Bowl victory against Clemson, capping LSU’s first national championship season. He finished third in the Heisman voting that season.
“Billy Cannon was LSU football through and through. He was a legend. He will be missed and never forgotten,” LSU football coach and Louisiana native Ed Orgeron said in a statement.
Cannon was an overwhelming choice as the Heisman winner in 1959, when he was named Associated Press player of the year, and followed that up by being the No. 1 overall selection in both the AFL and NFL drafts in 1960. He chose to sign with the AFL’s Oilers instead of the NFL’s Los Angeles Rams.
LSU retired Cannon’s No. 20 jersey.
“LSU meant more to our dad than anyone could ever know,” the Cannon family said in a statement released by the school. “It wasn’t the awards or the acknowledgments 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.”
Cannon is survived by his wife, Dorothy, and children Terry, Gina, Billy Jr., Bunnie and Dara.
—Copyright 2018 the Associated Press