Highs and Lows of Billy Cannon

October 28, 2009

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Thursday, October 29, 2009

Baton Rouge, Louisiana

COUNTERFEITIN’ BILLY CANNON-

THE TOAST OF LSU

By Jim Brown

Even though it’s just a second rate game for the LSU Tigers this Saturday night against Tulane, the crowd noise in Tiger Stadium will be deafening, but not because the ninth ranked Tigers should make mincemeat out of my old Alma Mater, Tulane.  The biggest burst of ear piercing volume will come when the number one LSU legend is introduced and waves to the crowd of over 92,000 fans.

 It was 50 years ago to the night when Billy Cannon made football history with his 87 yard run to beat Ole Miss and keep the Tigers undefeated.  His story is the rise and fall, than the rise again by LSU’s all time sports hero.  And guess what?  I played a minor role in what became Billy’s personal nightmare and fall from grace.

Even those who are not Tiger fans will admit it was one heck of a run.  Cannon either sidestepped or pushed away tackler after tackler as he weaved his way towards the end zone.  I wish I had a dollar for every time the magical run has been replayed on television.  You can well imagine the crowd’s reaction this Saturday night as one more time the fans in the stadium and the millions on national television once again see Ole’ Billy tear through the Rebel opposition.  (You can watch the run on the web at www.jimbrownla.com).

The feat by Billy beat Ole’ Miss 7 to 3, and made Cannon a legend for life.  Paul Revere had his ride and Billy had his run.  And ever since when Halloween falls on a Saturday night, the airwaves are filled with replay after replay of “the run.”  Some folks in Louisiana would sooner lock up the kids and throw out the candy than to miss seeing Billy strut his stuff on All Hollow’s Eve.

It was on New Year’s Day 1960, between the goal posts of the Sugar Bowl, Cannon, before 83,000 fans, signed a contract with the Houston Oilers of the AFL. That contract offered him $100,000 over three years, a $10,000 gift for his wife, a slightly used Cadillac and a promised chain of Cannon gas stations selling Cannonball Regular and Super Cannonball.

He led the league in rushing in 1961 but hurt his back in 1962. He was traded to the Oakland Raiders in 1964 and ended his career in 1970 as a tight end. During the off- seasons, though, Cannon had gone to dentistry school. With five children, Billy knew he had to prepare for the future. Because of his popularity, Cannon’s practice flourished to an estimated $300,000 a year.

OK, so how was yours truly involved?  It was 1983, and I was in my first term as Louisiana Secretary of State.  I was at my office at mid afternoon when my secretary said there were two Treasury agents to see me, and they demanded immediate attention.  (I learned a hard lesson some years later that one should never, ever talk to a federal agent.)  They pulled out a hundred dollar bill saying it was a fake, and that it had showed up in the Secretary of State’s bank account.

I had my staff go over all the various billing entrees and deposit records, and we were able to determine that the hundred dollar bill was used to pay for a corporate filing by a local attorney.  We later learned that in was the first counterfeit bill to be discovered in the Baton Rouge area.  Others quickly appeared, and a major money printing operation was broken open a few months later.  The seventh-largest counterfeiting ring in American history was no more.

For years thereafter when I made speeches around the state, I relished in telling those in attendance how I knew the bill was counterfeit.  “You know down at the bottom of the 100 dollar bill where it says ‘In God We Trust?’  Well on the Cannon bill, it said “Go to Hell Ole Miss.’ ” Being a Tulane graduate, I also shared that “You go to Tulane to earn money.  But if you want to make money, you go to LSU.”

Cannon quickly confessed and helped prosecutors crack the case wide-open. At the sentencing, Cannon told Judge Frank J. Polozola: “… what I did was wrong, terribly wrong. I have done everything within my power to correct my mistakes…”

Polozola replied: “If the name of the person I was about to sentence was not Dr. Billy Cannon, what sentence would I impose? The court refuses to allow those who have fame and fortune or status in life to commit a crime and then have a slap on the hand while imposing jail sentences on others who are less fortunate.”

The judge, known by many lawyers who appear before him as ‘the Ayatollah Polozola”, then gave Cannon a sentence, significantly more than others in the ring that Cannon had testified against: Five years in prison and a $10,000 fine. Cannon sold his practice to another orthodontist and surrendered his dentistry license.

To thousands of LSU fans, Cannon’s confession pierced the very heart of their allegiance and adulation of LSU’s greatest sports hero.  Like the little boy who pleaded with Shoeless Joe Jackson of the Chicago White Sox on the courthouse steps in the famous “Black Sox” baseball scandal of 1919, all many LSU fans could think of was, “Say it ain’t so, Billy.”

Why Cannon turned counterfeiter is, in the words of Smiley Anders, local newspaper columnist for the Morning Advocate and Cannon’s high school classmate, “One of the great unsolved mysteries in Louisiana.”  It was probably because of major financial problems. Cannon invested in real estate, a shopping center, an office building and other ventures He also gambled heavily on sports and bought race horses. By 1983, Cannon was involved in nearly 40 financial lawsuits with lending institutions, real-estate agents, utilities and private citizens. Luck, Billy discovered, favors nobody – not even football heroes.

As part of Cannon’s redemption, he took on the job as a dentist up at Angola State Penitentiary, an hour’s drive north of Baton Rouge. The guards and inmates alike love him up there. Do fans still hold a grudging disappointment of Cannon?  Well, when he was introduced a few years ago at Tiger Stadium just after being admitted to the College Football Hall of Fame, the cheering went on and on.  Repeated efforts by the stadium announcer to quiet the fans down fell on deaf ears.  Neither the President nor the Pope would have gotten such an avid ovation.  Billy was back, and all had been forgiven.

This Saturday night, the standing ovations will go on and on again as Billy Cannon’s sweeping run is replayed on the big Tiger Stadium screens. He will walk out on the field that has felt the highs and lows of Tiger football.  And that’s Billy Cannon.  He, like few others, has experienced such ups and downs. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that in life, there are no second acts.  And Thomas Wolfe wrote that you can’t come home again.  Billy Cannon proved them both wrong. 

                                                                          *****

“People associate me with football regardless of where I go…except when their tooth hurts.  They don’t care whether I played football or not.  They just want the toothache to stop.”  

                                                     Billy Cannon

 Peace and Justice

Jim Brown  Jim Brown’s weekly column appears in numerous newspapers and websites throughout the south.  To read past columns going back to 2002, go to www.jimbrownla.com.  


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