Billy Cannon, the 1959 Heisman winner from Louisiana State University, passed away at his home early Sunday morning (May 20) at the age of 80.
The Hall of Fame running back made his name as a key contributor to the powerful Tigers teams of the late ’50s, and as a distinguished halfback and tight end in the NFL before settling in as an orthodontist in Baton Rouge, La.
“The Heisman Trophy Trust is saddened by the passing of Billy Cannon,” said William J. Dockery, President of The Heisman Trophy Trust. “He was truly a Heisman legend. Our thoughts and prayers go out to his family at this time.”
Born in the small town of Philadelphia, Miss., on August 2, 1937, Cannon grew up in Baton Rouge where he attended Istrouma High, excelling in football, basketball and track. He chose to play football in college for hometown LSU, picking the Tigers over Florida and Mississippi. A rare athlete even by today’s standards, the 6-1, 210-pound Cannon combined sprinter speed with brute strength.
As a junior, Cannon was the driving force behind the Fighting Tigers as they carved out a perfect season and captured the 1958 national championship. He passed for a touchdown and kicked the extra point in LSU’s 7-0 win over Clemson in the Sugar Bowl, and earned MVP honors.
Cannon’s most memorable performance came on Halloween night in 1959 against Ole Miss. Top-ranked LSU trailed the third ranked Rebels 3-0 early in the fourth quarter, when Cannon fielded a punt at the LSU 11-yard-line and broke seven tackles on his way to paydirt. LSU won the contest 7-3.
That season, he rushed for 598 yards and five touchdowns, caught 11 passes for 161 yards, averaged nearly 16 yards per punt return and over 40 yards per punt while snagging four interceptions on defense. He became the second SEC player to win the Heisman, sweeping all five Heisman regions while beating out Richie Lucas of Penn State by a andslide margin.
After college, Cannon had NFL stints with the Houston Oilers, the Oakland Raiders and the Kansas City Chiefs, earning All-Pro honors as a halfback with Houston and as a tight end with Oakland. During his pro years, Billy went to dental school at the University of Tennessee, graduating in 1968 with a D.D.S. He continued his studies at a graduate program in orthodontics at Loyola in Chicago, earning two additional degrees. He later opened his own practice in Baton Rouge.
In 2008, Cannon was inducted into the National Football Foundation Hall of Fame.