Category Archives: Billy Cannon
The Louisiana State University football team was dominant in 1958 & 1959. Paul Dietzel’s recruiting classes of 1955 & 1956 paid huge dividends, and led the Tigers to an NCAA championship in 1958, and a third place national ranking the following year. LSU junior, Billy Cannon, took home the Heisman Trophy as the nation’s top collegiate football star in ’59, and was joined in the Tiger backfield by three other athletes who all went on to play professional football – Johnny Robinson, J.W. Brodnax, and Warren Rabb.
While browsing new releases on Amazon a couple of months back, I was pleased to see that a new biography on AFL legend, Billy Cannon, had been written. I placed my order, and when the book arrived, I set it on my stack to read. I completed it just the other night, and sadly, have mixed feelings about it.
Billy Cannon is a fascinating figure. An All-American and Heisman Trophy winner from LSU, the AFL’s first marquee draft choice, a two-time AFL champ, Super Bowl II participant, dentist and felon convicted of counterfeit. There is enough juicy stuff there to keep a storyteller busy for quite some time, and I must say that author Charles deGravelles did a fine job of covering most of the material. In fact, I found the book to be very well-written. DeGravelles touts Cannon’s attributes, but also of pointing out his flaws. He digs a bit into Cannon’s psyche, and tries to determine what led to his ingrained streak of rebellion that got Cannon into several spots of trouble throughout his life.
Yesterday we shared Dave Steidel’s study on the process by which Billy Cannon joined the Houston Oilers. Today Steidel takes a look at Cannon’s contributions on the field during his first few years of professional football.
Thanking Cannon for forging a path to the AFL for the many college stars who signed on may have come from the owners and the commissioner in their own way, but when training camp opened in July of 1960, there was no gift of thanks from the players, only the target to place on his back that marked him as the man to be measured against. As a media darling, the shifty, slashing 6’1″, 210-pounder was clocked in the hundred in 9.4 and was the scourge of LSU’s Southeastern Conference opponents for three years. Cannon was described in terms of being ‘faster than a speeding bullet and more powerful than a locomotive’ and because of the high profile law suit, everyone was aware of what his pay check looked like. It all became a source of envy for the new hopefuls in uniform who were out to impress their new coaches. Now it seemed like every defensive player in the league was out to show the two time All-American how “real football” was played, including his Houston scrimmage mates. More often than not during his first year he would hear comments from tacklers like “This is a different league, Cannon. You better grow up.” And when he fumbled in his first league game one opponent remarked “You’re playing with men now, All-American.”
One of the most important of early American Football League players was Houston Oilers running back, Billy Cannon. In a two-part study, Dave Steidel takes a look at how Cannon came to the Oilers, and what he meant to the AFL.
When asked what one player, more than any other, saved the AFL from peril and brought it to the cusp of parity with the NFL, most people will answer, Joe Namath. When asked what one player put the AFL on the map, gave it immediate credibility and brought it more publicity than they could have imaged even before they played a single game, the answer has to be Billy Cannon, everybody’s All-American! He was my first favorite AFL player. Cannon was the 1959 Heisman Trophy winner and college football’s glamour boy, having led his LSU Tigers to the 1958 National Championship and authored the most talked about play of the season, his Halloween night punt return to beat Mississippi. Cannon was the biggest name signed by AFL in 1960 after Houston owner Bud Adams convinced him to sign with the Oilers and abandon the letter of intent he signed with Pete Rozelle and the Los Angeles Rams. The Oilers signing took place under the goal posts following the Sugar Bowl, his last game, setting off a war between the two leagues that would end up in the courtroom and put the AFL on the national media map. It would be the AFL’s biggest coup over the NFL after the senior league torpedoed them by first stealing one the founding franchises, Minnesota and then after both Lamar Hunt and Bud Adams did not bite on the expansion committee’s last ditch offer to squash the league by giving them the franchises they sought in the first place, dropped a new team, the Cowboys, in Hunt’s back yard.
For the past few years I have been putting together a collection of wire service photos that represent some of the more important moments in AFL history. I recently opened a new photo gallery for this collection, which can be found on the home page. The gallery is titled, “Important Moments in AFL History.”
The gallery opens with a photo that was distributed by the Associated Press on August 1, 1959. This image, which is the earliest piece of AFL memorabilia that I have found, shows a young Lamar Hunt, and carries the following caption: DALLAS, TEXAS – AUG 1 – SEEKS NEW FOOTBALL LEAGUE – Lamar Hunt, 26, son of oil billionaire H.L. Hunt of Dallas is seeking to organize a new pro football league which will try to start play in 1960.