USA TODAY US Edition
Cannon book pulls no punches
Biography chronicles ’59 Heisman winner, misdeeds and all
It took a prison for Billy Cannon to finally put his prison term behind him.
“I hear you’ve got a lot of experience,” warden Burl Cain of the maximum-security state penitentiary in Angola told Cannon during his interview for a dentist position there in 1995. Cain was referring to Cannon’s orthodontist practice in Baton Rouge that began after his retirement from pro football in 1970, stopped when Cannon went to prison in Texarkana, Texas, in 1983 for counterfeiting and struggled to regain footing when he restarted it in 1986 after prison.
“Yes sir,” Cannon tells Cain in his biography, A Long, Long Run,” published by LSU Press. “Which side of the razor wire do you want it on?”
Cannon, LSU’s first Leonard Fournette from 1957-59, is that candid with self-deprecating humor about the good and bad of his life through 215 pages tracing his life as a criminal — as well as his collegiate and pro football careers. The powerful and track-fast tailback led LSU to its first national title in 1958 and only Heisman Trophy — so far — courtesy of his 89-yard Halloween Run on a punt return on Oct. 31, 1959, in the No. 1 Tigers’ 7-3 win vs. No. 3 Mississippi. Then he carried the Houston Oilers to AFL titles in 1960 and ’ 61 and played in Super Bowl II for the Oakland Raiders as a tight end.
“I wasn’t going to make him a saint,” said first-time author Charles N. deGravelles, a former journalist turned prison minister for the last 25 years who befriended Cannon while at Angola. “I wasn’t going to put him on a pedestal, as great an athlete as he was, and he truly was a once-in-ageneration athlete. I work at a place where men have done lots of bad stuff, so I understand. He’s been there, too. He’s not a saint.”
Cannon, 78, remains head of dentistry at Angola after surviving a stroke in 2013.
“I’ve been where they’ve been,” Cannon says in the book. “I can empathize. I talk to them when they first come in, and when they leave. I say, ‘You can make it.’ They say, ‘You made it, Doc. We got a shot, don’t we?’ And I say, ‘Don’t waste it.’ ”
The opening pages of the book describe Cannon’s first arrest — in 1955 — for theft when he was already a star tailback before his senior year at Istrouma High in a blue-collar, north Baton Rouge neighborhood.
“We were not only stupid. We were criminal,” Cannon said in a recent interview. “We took advantage of people in awkward situations. We would rob them with threats of violence. We knew it was wrong. But it was fun, and it was profitable. Luckily, no one got injured. But I got embarrassed. My family got embarrassed. The people we took advantage of got embarrassed.”
In a small foreshadowing of his role in the $50 million counterfeiting ring that landed him in prison in 1983, Cannon concocted a combination of liquids commonly used for stationery to transform the Istrouma assistant principal’s absentee forms into excused absences so he could play hooky.
Cannon tended to wryly smile at authority while breaking its rules. When former LSU track coach and old friend Boots Garland dropped by Cannon’s home in a new Baton Rouge suburb to check on him after his arrest for counterfeiting July 9, 1983, he asked Cannon if there was anything he could do. “Yeah, Boots,” Cannon says in the book. “You got change for a hundred?”
Cannon did not laugh all the way to the prison, though. His wife, the former Dot Dupuy whom Cannon married during their college days at LSU and had five children with, went into the bedroom crying as the arrest happened at their home. She knew nothing of the counterfeiting or the months-long dragnet that eventually tackled her husband.
“How do you love somebody and want to kill him at the same time? I was angry because it hurt the kids,” Dot says in the book.
“I wanted it told with no coverup, with no sugarcoating,” Cannon said. “Just tell it as it was. Looking back, I was too heavily invested in real estate. I made a mistake and took the short way out. Many, many regrets in my life. Would I do it over the same way? Definitely not.
“Life is for living, and I’ve lived a good one. Made some mistakes. Some people make small mistakes. I make bigger ones.”