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Billy Cannon, the 1959 Heisman Trophy winner while at LSU, subsequent pro star and Louisiana's No. 1 resident legend by far, had just ducked furtively into a waiting car parked behind the Federal courthouse in Baton Rouge last Friday. Moments before, Cannon, 45, had pleaded guilty to participating in a counterfeiting scam that ranks among the biggest ever uncovered in the U.S.—at least $6 million in $100 bills.
As the white Lincoln, driven by Cannon's old friend, Ray Termini, started to race away, its path was blocked by a flatbed truck. Finally, Termini was able to slip around and speed off. Cannon, who was sitting in the front seat, looked over and said, "Ray, as a getaway driver, you get an F." In the back seat, Cannon's attorney, Robert L. (Buck) Kleinpeter; Kleinpeter's son, Loren, also a lawyer; and Billy Cannon Jr., a safety and linebacker at Texas A&M, at last allowed themselves a small laugh.
Indeed, until July 9 it had seemed that Cannon, an orthodontist whose practice grossed more than $300,000 a year and whose performances on the football field are the bedrock of LSU's enormous gridiron tradition, had lived a life that graded A +: married to his high school sweet-heart, father of five brainy children, successful in his profession and in real-estate investing, idolized beyond belief. "This is the goofiest thing I've ever seen happen," says John B. Oggero of Houston, another old pal of Cannon's. "Something has caused this man to go bananas. It's like there have been two Billy Cannons—the real one and the bad one."
True. Often he's the warm, wry and whimsical man who told Buck Kleinpeter the other day, "Did you know you can tell it's a phony $100 bill if Ben Franklin has braces on his teeth?" Periodically, though, Cannon evidences a baffling dark side. On the whole, however, that part of him has been variously denied, excused or ignored because of his accomplishments during those glorious years at LSU.
In 1958 Cannon led the Tigers to an 11-0 record and the national championship, the only one in the school's history. The following season, against Ole Miss, Cannon won the game with a celebrated 89-yard punt return in the fourth quarter. To make the runback he had to break Coach Paul Dietzel's firm rule against fielding a punt inside the 15. Cannon hauled in the ball at the 11, took three steps, cut left and then ran past, over and through seven defenders who had clean shots at him. Every year, during the week of the LSU-Ole Miss game, that run is shown incessantly on TV throughout Louisiana. It still sends chills up the spines of the Tiger faithful.
Maybe, goes one theory, that one run—without it Cannon never would have won the Heisman—ultimately made him too big a hero, and coping with the adulation eventually became too much for him. "The problem is us, the fans," says Oggero. "We demanded too much of him." Don (Scooter) Purvis, who played behind Cannon for four years at LSU, says, "I wonder if Billy realized what he was and what he had."
For the last two to three years, which turn out to be the period in which Cannon was involved in counterfeiting, his friends had been worried about his erratic behavior. Says Oggero, "The rest of us would be together and say, 'Now why's he acting weird? Why is he this-a-way with us?' " Cannon stopped returning phone calls. He'd fly off the handle or stare into space. Termini asked him recently why he was so uptight, and Cannon replied, "I've got some problems, but they can be worked out."
To be sure, Cannon has a long history of unsavory behavior. He grew up in the tough North Baton Rouge section. His father was a janitor. Cannon attended Istrouma High, where all the kids from blue-collar families went. In the 1955 yearbook the picture of the basketball team shows Cannon smiling angelically while unobtrusively rendering a crude hand gesture. For weekend sport, says former Istrouma High Principal Ellis (Little Fuzzy) Brown, some of the guys would go downtown "and slap the queers around." On June 11, 1955 Cannon and three buddies went down to the corner of Laurel and Third streets. A man made a proposition, and, says Brown, the man and Cannon went to the man's apartment, where Cannon worked him over. The man, according to young Billy's story then, asked what he could do to keep the situation quiet and offered Cannon a bottle of liquor. However, the man later charged Cannon and one of Cannon's friends with stealing the liquor ($11.95), and both pleaded guilty. They received suspended sentences of 90 days and were put on probation.
Shortly thereafter, a repentant Cannon appeared before the congregation at the Istrouma Baptist Church and said, "I know I made a mistake. Have faith in me. I will make good, you'll be proud of me, and you'll never be disappointed." Says Clark Ross, Billy's old Sunday school teacher, of the adult Cannon, "I'm shocked. Human nature is most unpredictable. I guess he got his priorities mixed up."
Another unusual situation developed during Cannon's senior season at LSU when, though his team still would play in the Sugar Bowl, he secretly signed a contract with the Los Angeles Rams. To get him, Pete Rozelle, who was general manager of the Rams at the time, spirited Cannon away to Philadelphia, hid him under the name of Billy Gunn and signed him in late November to a three-year deal worth $50,000. But under the goalposts at the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1, 1960, Cannon signed another contract, this one with the Houston Oilers of the new AFL. That deal was worth $100,000—an astounding figure at the time—and included promises of gas stations that would sell Cannonball Regular. A lawsuit ensued, which the Oilers won. The judge ruled that Rozelle had taken advantage of a "provincial lad untutored...in the ways of the business world."