In the era of cable TV, the Internet and social media, we sometimes think there’s never been as much hype in sports as there is these days.
The recent death of Billy Cannon, the 1959 Heisman Trophy winner, is a reminder that even back in the day, players could become larger than life heroes even without today’s hype.
Cannon was one of them.
Playing running back and defensive back, he helped LSU win the national title in 1958 and his 89-yard punt return for a touchdown that helped beat Mississippi, 7-3, in 1959 is still one of the most iconic moments in the history of college football.
Both teams were undefeated and LSU was ranked first and Mississippi third.
Cannon and a teammate then saved the win with a fourth-down stop when Mississippi was on the LSU two-yard line in the fading seconds.
The Halloween night game was not nationally televised, and there weren’t all the highlight shows to replay it in a zillion times, but the run is still loved all over the Internet.
It is such a legendary moment that it is often forgotten that LSU lost to Tennessee, 14-13, the next week, when Cannon failed to make a two-point conversion.
Or that Mississippi blanked LSU in a rematch in the Sugar Bowl.
That didn’t matter. Cannon was so heralded that he was the biggest prize at the start of the AFL-NFL war.
He signed with the Houston Oilers under the goalposts at the end of the Sugar Bowl. But then Pete Rozelle, then the Los Angeles Rams general manager, pointed out he had already signed Cannon secretly during the season.
In a rare misstep, Rozelle should have let it go and not let it become public he had signed Cannon for a three-year deal for $50,000, a figure that Oilers owner Bud Adams doubled.
Instead, Rozelle fought it in court and lost.
Winning the court fight and getting Cannon was a coup for the AFL, the first shot in the war that led to the merger and the Super Bowl.
As it turned out, Cannon played a decade but didn’t duplicate his college success, although he led the AFL in rushing in 1961 before a serious injury eroded his skills. He wound up being a good tight end for the Oakland Raiders.
And then he retired and became a dentist.
That was followed by a spectacular fall from grace when he was involved into a counterfeiting ring and spent nearly three years in prison.
There was still another chapter in his saga as Cannon became a prison dentist for 22 years and became a role model for inmates.
His life was chronicled in “A Long, Long Run’’ by journalist turned prison minister Charles N. deGravelles. Cannon freely admitted his mistakes and said he wanted to tell his story in the hopes that today’s athletes would learn from his mistakes.
And now LSU plans to build a statue in his honor.
His was a classic rags to riches and rags to riches story. The College Football Hall of Fame actually booted him out and then later reinstated him.
Noted for his sense of humor, Cannon called it “the old penthouse to the outhouse” story.
His life was a long, long, long run. It didn’t need any hype.