(Below is a transcript of a feature on 1959 Heisman winner Billy Cannon’s famous Halloween run that appeared in the Oct. 25 episode of the Heisman Trophy Podcast. It has been edited down slightly from the podcast version).
Today we share this Halloween-themed Heisman Spotlight, featuring one of the most famous plays in the trophy’s history.
And yea, well, sure, this is a famous moment in Heisman lore.
But really, that pales in comparison to the absolute legendary status it holds in Louisiana State history. We mean that both in terms of LSU Athletics as well as the entire state of Louisiana.
This is full-on mythology status.
If you haven’t guessed yet, we are talking about the Halloween Run, 1959 Heisman winner and LSU great Billy Cannon’s earth-shattering 89-yard, fourth-quarter punt return for a touchdown that gave the No. 1 Tigers a 7-3 win over No. 3 Mississippi on Halloween night, 1959.
Kids growing up in Baton Rouge were raised on similar Halloween traditions as the rest of us. You dress up in your favorite costumes, you load up on your neighbors candy and you keep your eyes peeled for ghouls and ghosts. But down in Baton Rouge and outlying areas of Louisiana, Halloween also means the local TV stations always run a special segment and do an annual salute to the Halloween Run.
Now, let’s set this up a bit.
LSU, under Coach Paul Dietzel, was on a bit of a heater, having won its first national title in 1958 with a perfect 11-0 season, capped with a Sugar Bowl win over Clemson that marked just the second time of the decade the Tigers had won more than five games.
The Tigers opened the 1959 season ranked first and won their first six games while allowing just two filed goals in 24 quarters.
LSU entered the Magnolia Bowl — the rivalry game with Ole Miss that dates back to 1894 — riding an 18-game winning streak.
Dan Borne is the school’s decades-long public address announcer for Tiger football and basketball. He was a youth when the rivalry was at its peak — on the LSU side — and knows it well.
Said Borne: “You have got to put the LSU-Ole Miss rivalry in perspective here. Lots of people look at LSU-Alabama, and that is top drawer, but in the 1950s and ’60s it was LSU against Ole Miss. That was great competitive rivalry.
“But coming out of the 1958 season, when LSU won its first national championships game, the LSU-Ole Miss game was a tremendous set up. In 1958, LSU was No. 1 at the time, 6-0, and Ole Miss came to Baton Rouge No. 6, also 6-0, and LSU beat Ole Miss 14-0 in the championship season.
“Fast forward to 1959, which is when Billy made the famous run, Ole Miss, because of a quirk in scheduling, came back to Baton Rouge to play in 1959.”
As for the Rebels, well they were smack in the middle of the greatest stretch of football in program history. And that is not up for debate. Between 1957 and 1962, they finished with 10 wins three times and with nine wins the other three seasons.
The 1960 Rebel team won a share of the national title and had it not been for Billy Cannon, they might have won it in 1959, too. In fact, had it not been for Cannon, Mississippi might have had its first 11-win season, something the Rebels still haven’t attained.
And while LSU entered the game with a stout defense that had given up just six points, well, Ole Miss had only allowed seven.
Like Borne, Smiley Anders grew up knee deep in the LSU-Ole Miss rivalry. A reporter and columnist for The Advocate in Baton Rouge for half a century, he went to high school with Cannon and remembers him as a youth.
Said Anders: “He was a playful kinda guy. He came from a rough area of town. Over around Wells Avenue and Scenic Highway. It had a lot of pool halls and bars, sleazy bars, the guys from Exxon ships would dock at the docks and wind up on this little strip there and looking for bars and pool shooting and whatever else sailors look for ashore. And it was pretty rough.
“He was a fun loving kid and smart. I sat behind him in American history and I confess to looking at his papers once in awhile because he was a bright kid.”
While Anders went to journalism school, Cannon blossomed into a 6-foot-1, 215-pound running back and one of the top prep players in the country who earned a scholarship to LSU.
Now, back to Halloween, 1959, which was a dark and stormy night. Well, actually, the almanac will tell you the thunderstorms had drifted out of Baton Rouge well before the 8 p.m. kickoff, but the night air was still thick and sticky and the turf was soggy.
Borne grew up on nights like those. He was 12 when the teams met.
Said Borne: “I’ve been going to LSU football games since I was around 8 years old. That’s around, 1954. I’ve been in and out of the stadium for a long, long time and sat in it when the games were at 8 o’clock and the lights weren’t as bright as they are now in the stadium because there was no TV telecasts at that time. The fog would kind of drift in the stadium about the start of the third quarter and had an ethereal effect. It was like you were in a different world.”
No, he wasn’t at the game. It was Halloween and he was at a party —where all the kids were listening to the game.
Said Borne: “I didn’t go to the Halloween night game. I heard it on the radio. I was 12 years old. I recall vividly listening to the entire game.
“We had a friend who had a Halloween party that night. Because it was Halloween night and it was a Saturday. And everyone went to the party but nobody partied. We were 12 years old and everyone at that party sat around the radio and listened to the game.
“You have to understand, there was one game a week on television. One game. Now you have 50. It was the thing. And my little south Louisiana town was 100% LSU when we weren’t playing Tulane. When we played Tulane the population of 14,000 was pretty well split. But boy, when we were playing Ole Miss it was LSU all the way. And we listened to that game and it was as if we were in a trance. All of us placed ourselves in that stadium. That stadium sat 68,000 people, and having gone to that stadium so many years before, and just sitting in it, you can feel yourself in it.”
The recorded crowd that night — on Homecoming no less — was 67,327. And for most of the night, they watched a defensive struggle with far more punts than points.
Initially, Cannon looked more likely to be the goat than the hero.
He fumbled twice in the first quarter, the second of which led to a short Rebel field goal for a 3-0 lead — A 3-point lead that looked like it may hold up.
LSU wound up fumbling three times in the first half and could barely move the ball, but entered the third quarter still down just a field goal.
A Cannon interception early in the third quarter gave the Tigers their best field position of the night, but field goal kicker Wendell Harris missed a 37-yard try.
LSU spent much of the third quarter in Mississippi territory, but one drive ended on a failed fourth-down run, another was stopped on a fake punt.
The Rebels, under their longtime coach John Vaught, used their punter Jake Gibbs — who doubled as their quarterback — as a weapon, often punting on first down just to flip the field and pin LSU deep. It worked early in the game and they stuck to the playbook into the fourth quarter.
Cannon returned an early fourth-quarter punt 20 yards, but the consequent drive stalled. But when the Tigers sacked Gibbs for a 10-yard loss that landed him back in Ole Miss territory, Vaught directed Gibbs to punt away.
Dietzel instructed Cannon not to field it deep, certainly not if it was near the 10, but Cannon got a clean bounce at the 11-yard line and took off.
First, the famous call by LSU play-by-play announcer J.C. Politz, who only announced Tiger football for two seasons but hey, timing is everything. Hear it below.
As a journalism student at the time, Smiley Anders was at the game as a spotter, making 25 dollars to help photographers with their work. He was on the field in the fourth quarter, but on the opposite side of where Cannon fielded the punt. He didn’t see it well at first.
Said Anders: “And then he started running and it was the damnedest thing I ever saw. Ole Miss had a helluva team, they were really good.
“But these guys were hitting him and it was like hitting a brick wall. They were literally just bouncing off of him. He was just determined by god he was gonna make the the goal line.”
In all, eight Rebel players got their hands or other body parts on Cannon, but none could slow him down as he raced down the right side of the field into the end zone for the go-ahead score, sending the crowd into a frenzy. Well, at least the LSU side.
Said Borne: “The film of it is fun because running along the sidelines with him, there’s a referee and you have to figure that ref was probably doing a 4.3 40. Cannon was an SEC champion sprinter as well as a field guy, so a champion both in track and in football.”
Rebel All-American Marvin Terrell was on the field that play and described his memories of the play in a 2018.
Said Terrell: “Cannon wasn’t even supposed to field the punt but it hit on that wet turf and bounced right to him, he couldn’t get out of the way. So he grabbed it and took off down the sideline. There were several of us that missed him down the sideline. I was the last one chasing him and I couldn’t catch him of course because he was the fastest guy on the field.”
The play has all the trappings of a game-winner, but there was still some 10 minutes to go in the game and suddenly, Ole Miss found a way to move the ball.
Said Borne: “Everyone went crazy, but then we started biting our nails. Because in the fourth quarter Ole Miss started driving.”
On the Rebels final drive, they converted five first downs and reached the 7-yard line with about 90 seconds to play.
Three runs netted five yards, leaving a fourth and goal from the 2.
On fourth down, Ole Miss back-up QB Doug Elmore tested the left side of the line, but was first met by Warren Rabb and as he tried to squirt free, Cannon came up to finish off the tackle — and the game.
Late in his life, Cannon was asked about that final defensive stop.
Said Cannon: “We’d get into a gap 8 and I’d move up to middle linebacker. Now we had the best linebacker in football playing defensive tackle. He held the line three times. I batted him back. (I thought) they ain’t coming over here a fourth time. As soon as I saw (where the play was headed), I’m in hot pursuit and Warren (Rabb) comes up and makes great contact. We were together last night and he told me, you know, it’s been 55 years and you finally gave me credit for the tackle.”
Said Anders: “If they hadn’t have stopped him, it would’ve ruined everything. It would have been a nice run, but it wouldn’t have been a legend like it is now.”
And let’s give Dan Borne the closing comments and where he puts the Halloween run in the history of LSU football.
Said Borne: “There have been great runs, there have been great season, there have been great athletes. We have another Heisman winner in Joe Burrow and another strong candidate in (2023 QB) Jayden (Daniels).
“But for the old timers who have been around long, that run tops everything. Because it was not only the run that scored the touchdown that won the game, but it was an incredibly noteworthy individual effort. There was blocking of course, but to break seven tackles, and to score, that’s special. There haven’t been many plays in LSU history that would reach that pinnacle and in my book it’s still No. 1. Where else can you point to one play where a player ran for a Tiger touchdown, a Tiger victory and a Heisman trophy, all in 89 yards.”