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Dr. William Abb Cannon, Sr.

Also Known As: "Billy", "Billie", "Billy Ab"
Birthplace: Philadelphia, Neshoba County, Mississippi, United States
Death: May 20, 2018 (80)
Saint Francisville, West Feliciana Parish, Louisiana, United States
Immediate Family:

Son of Harvey Whittle Cannon, Sr. and Virgie Lee Cannon
Husband of Private
Father of Billy Cannon, Jr.; Private; Private and Private
Brother of Harvey Whittle Cannon, Jr.

Occupation: NFL Player
Managed by: Private User
Last Updated:
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Immediate Family

About Billy Cannon

Billy Cannon, a charismatic college and professional 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. The university did not specify the cause.

For much of Cannon’s life, he was a hero for the ages. 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, the first five as a running back and the rest as a tight end.

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.”

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

In an agreement 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. In September 1987, after four years in prison and a halfway house, he was released and reopened his dental practice.

Four days after he pleaded guilty, the Hall of Fame denied him induction. The board chairman, Vincent dePaul Draddy, said candidates must be “great football players, but also good citizens.” He added, “It is the first time in our whole history that a candidate before induction turned out to be troublesome.”

Cannon’s involvement in counterfeiting was tied to gambling debts, bad business investments and questionable friends, and 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 Aug. 2, 1937, in Philadelphia, Miss. As a youth, he hung out with a rough crowd, and just before his senior year in high school he received a 90-day suspended sentence and probation in a beating incident.

In football, he became a strong, swift runner, and 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 also sprinted 100 yards in 9.5 seconds for the Louisiana State track team.

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

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.”

In 1960, Cannon became the first choice in the National Football League draft. He signed with two teams: the Los Angeles Rams of the N.F.L. and the Houston Oilers of the upstart American Football League. When a federal judge ruled that the three-year, $50,000 contract he had secretly signed with Pete Rozelle, the general manager of the Rams, was invalid, it made legal the four-year, $110,000 contract he 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, and in his second season he led the A.F.L. in rushing yards. From 1964 through 1969 he played for the Oakland Raiders, becoming a strong blocking tight end.

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

Cannon’s survivors include his wife, Dorothy, and five children, Terry, Gina, Billy Jr., Bunnie and Dara.

Through the years, Cannon’s friends tried to explain why he went wrong. One of those friends, Paul Manasseh, once 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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Billy Cannon's Timeline

August 2, 1937
Philadelphia, Neshoba County, Mississippi, United States
October 8, 1961
Baton Rouge, East Baton Rouge Parish, Louisiana, United States
May 20, 2018
Age 80
Saint Francisville, West Feliciana Parish, Louisiana, United States