In the spring of 1958, Billy Cannon of LSU was either the strongest sprinter or the fastest shot putter in college athletics.
When he was attending Istrouma High in Baton Rouge, Cannon broke the state record in the shot put with a toss of 57-4 and ran the 100-yard dash in 9.7 seconds. At LSU, he threw the heavier (16-pound) college shot over 54 feet and improved his time in the 100 to 9.4 seconds.
Cannon was a 165-pound sophomore when Istrouma coach James “Big Fuzzy” Brown started a weight training program in 1954. Two years later, he gained more than 100 yards in 12 of Istrouma’s 13 games and scored 33 touchdowns. He had 178 yards rushing and three touchdowns in Istrouma’s 40-6 victory over Fair Park in the state championship game.
He led LSU to the national collegiate football championship in 1958, finishing third in Heisman Trophy voting behind Pete Dawkins of Army and Randy Duncan of Iowa. A year later, Cannon easily won the Heisman although the Tigers’ bid for a repeat title fell short in a one-point loss to Tennessee at Knoxville. He had more points in Heisman voting than the combined totals of the next eight players, sweeping all sections of the country.
Cannon was not only the Tigers’ fastest player, but he was one of the biggest. There was one 210-pounder on each of the three units (White team, Go team, Chinese Bandits). Nobody else outweighed the 204-pound Cannon by more than one pound.
He probably already had the Heisman Trophy wrapped up when the Tigers played Ole Miss on Oct. 31, 1959 – Halloween night. But Cannon erased all doubts that night with an 89-yard touchdown punt return that is still being shown on television more than 50 years later. That play became the essence of LSU football.
LSU won that game 7-3 when Cannon and Warren Rabb stopped Ole Miss quarterback Doug Elmore at the Tigers’ one-yard line with 18 seconds remaining in the game. But the Tigers lost their 19-game winning streak and No. 1 ranking at Knoxville a week later when Cannon’s two-point conversion attempt was ruled short.
“I’ll go to my grave believing I was over the goal line,” Cannon said of that play.
“I don’t know if there’s ever been a back on this field as good as Cannon,” legendary Tennessee coach Bob Neyland said after the Vols’ 14-13 win over the Tigers, which dropped LSU to third place in the Associated Press poll behind Syracuse and Texas.
Cannon’s pro career started with the Houston Oilers. He helped them win the first two American Football League championships, and was the Most Valuable Player in the first two AFL title games. In an 11-year pro career, he had 2,455 yards rushing and caught 236 passes for 3,656 yards. He had another 1,882 yards in kick returns, and scored 392 points.
His best single season rushing total at LSU was 686 yards, No. 4 in school history at that time. After gaining 140 yards rushing against Alabama in the second game of fhis career, Cannon was over 100 yards in only three of his last 30 collegiate games. In his Heisman season, he had 11 yards in 11 carries against Kentucky, 32 yards against Mississippi State, 35 yards against Tennessee and 48 yards rushing against Ole Miss on Halloween night.
Cannon finished his college career with school record totals of 1,867 yards rushing and 154 points. Brad Davis broke the rushing record in 1974 and Doug Moreau broke the scoring record in 1965.
Jerry Byrd is the former sports editor of the Bossier Press-Tribune and an award-winning columnist. You can contact him by E-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org