Billy Cannon, Football Star With a Troubled Life, Dies at 80

Billy Cannon won the Heisman Trophy, given to college football’s best player, in 1959 after his senior season at Louisiana State University.

Billy Cannon, a charismatic college and pro football hero whose world came crashing down when he went to prison for counterfeiting, died on Friday at his home in St. Francisville, La. He was 80.

His death was announced by Louisiana State University, where he had been an all-American halfback. No cause was given.

Cannon was admired and honored for much of his life. When he won the 1959 Heisman Trophy as the nation’s outstanding college player — he remains Louisiana State’s only Heisman winner — it was presented by Richard M. Nixon, then the vice president. Cannon then spent 11 years as a pro.

In those off-seasons, he earned a degree in dentistry. He became an orthodontist and a real estate developer in Baton Rouge, the home of the university.

“I’m very happy, very contented, very Middle American,” he said at the time, adding that he was enjoying orthodontics because he was “making pretty little girls prettier.”

Cannon was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame in February 1983. But everything changed when he was linked to an operation that had printed almost $5 million in counterfeit bills.

In a deal with prosecutors, Cannon pleaded guilty to one charge of conspiracy and possession of counterfeit $100 bills and agreed to cooperate in the investigation.

That August, he was sentenced to five years in prison. He was released after four years in prison and a halfway house and reopened his dental practice.

Four days after he pleaded guilty, the Hall of Fame denied him induction, overruling his election to it. The board chairman, Vincent dePaul Draddy, said candidates must be “great football players, but also good citizens.”

“It is the first time in our whole history that a candidate before induction turned out to be troublesome,” Mr. Draddy said.

Cannon’s involvement in counterfeiting was tied to gambling debts, bad business investments and questionable friends. At the time of his arrest, he was involved in almost 40 financial lawsuits. He never explained his role in the counterfeiting, saying only: “I took a shot. It didn’t work.”

After prison, his dental practice went bad. He said he had no money. He gave his Heisman Trophy to a restaurant owner for display in exchange for free lunches.

William Abb Cannon was born on Aug. 2, 1937, in Philadelphia, Miss. As a youth, he hung out with a rough crowd; at one point he was given a 90-day suspended sentence and probation in a beating incident. But he was a strong, swift runner in football.

In college, he was a runner, passer, receiver, punter, kicker, punt returner, kickoff returner, defensive back and, in the goal-line defense, middle linebacker. At 6-foot-1 and 210 pounds, he sprinted 100 yards in 9.5 seconds for the university track team.

As a junior, Cannon led Louisiana State football to a 10-0 record and the unofficial national championship, winning player of the year awards. In the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans, he passed for a touchdown and kicked the extra point in beating Clemson 7-0.

His most memorable play came as a senior. With Louisiana State trailing Mississippi, 3-0, and 10 minutes remaining, he caught a punt on his own 11-yard line, broke as many as seven tackles and ran 89 yards for a touchdown and a 7-3 victory. Arthur Daley, the New York Times sports columnist, called him “the most electrifying single performer on the video screens today.”

Cannon was the first choice in the 1960 National Football League draft. He signed with both the Los Angeles Rams of the N.F.L. and the Houston Oilers of the upstart American Football League. But a federal judge invalidated a three-year, $50,000 contract he had secretly signed with Pete Rozelle, the Rams’ general manager (and later the N.F.L. commissioner). The ruling made legal a four-year, $110,000 contract Cannon had signed with the Oilers.

Years later, Cannon said: “I elected to take the most money the traffic would bear. I needed it.”

He played with the Oilers from 1960 through 1963, leading the A.F.L. in rushing yards in his second season. He went on to play for the Oakland Raiders, from 1964 though the 1969 season, becoming a strong blocking tight end.

The Raiders dropped him just before the 1970 season. By then he had a dentistry degree, but he said he was not ready to quit football. “I can be a dentist the rest of my life,” he said. He signed with the Kansas City Chiefs, played six games and retired.

Cannon is survived by his wife, Dorothy; his daughters, Terri Cannon Byrd, Gina Cannon McWilliams, Dara Cannon Kelsoe and Bunnie Cannon; a son, Billy Jr.; eight grandchildren; and eight great-grandchildren.

Through the years, Cannon’s friends tried to explain why he went wrong. One friend, Paul Manasseh, said: “Billy’s gone through life figuring he could do anything and get away with it, that he was above the law. Billy’s basically a good guy, but he does some dumb things. He’s a very complex person. I’m no shrink. Go figure it.”

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