Billy Cannon died this week. He was a Louisiana sports legend. There are some things you just don’t forget. Where you were on 9/11, or when President John Kennedy was shot. Down here in the Bayou State, add to those special dates Halloween night 59 years ago when Billy Cannon made football history with his 87 yard run to beat Ole Miss and keep the Tigers undefeated. His story is the rise and fall, then the rise again by LSU’s all-time great sports hero.
Even those who are not Tiger fans have to admit it was one heck of a run. Cannon either sidestepped or pushed away tackler after tackler as he weaved his way towards the end zone. I wish I had a dollar for every time the magical run has been replayed on television. You can imagine the crowd’s reaction on most Saturday football nights in Tiger Stadium as once again the fans in the stadium, and the millions on national television, see Ole’ Billy tear through the Rebel opposition.
This feat by Cannon allowed the Tigers to beat Ole’ Miss 7 to 3, and made him a celebrity for life. Paul Revere had his famous ride and Billy Cannon had his remarkable run.
Cannon went on to play professional football with the Houston Oilers and the Oakland Raiders. Then he went to dental school and built a successful dental practice in Baton Rouge. Because of his popularity, Cannon’s practice flourished to an estimated $300,000 a year – quite a sum in the 1960s! But then his celebrity world came crashing down, and I played a small role in his demise.
It was 1983, and I was in my first term as Louisiana Secretary of State. I was at my office one afternoon when my secretary said there were two Treasury agents to see me, and they demanded immediate attention. They pulled out a hundred dollar bill saying it was a fake, and that it had shown up in the Secretary of State’s bank account.
I had my staff go over all the various billing and deposit records, and we were able to determine that a local attorney used the hundred-dollar bill to pay for a corporate filing. We later learned that in was the first Cannon-made counterfeit bill to be discovered in the Baton Rouge area. Others quickly appeared, and a major money printing operation was broken open a few months later. The seventh-largest counterfeiting ring in American history was no more.
For years thereafter when I made speeches around the state, I relished in telling those in attendance how I knew the bill was counterfeit. “You know down at the bottom of the 100 dollar bill where it says ‘In God We Trust?’ Well on the Cannon 100 dollar bill, it said ‘Go to Hell Ole Miss.’”
Cannon quickly confessed and helped prosecutors crack the case wide-open. At the sentencing, Cannon told federal Judge Frank J. Polozola: “… what I did was wrong, terribly wrong. I have done everything within my power to correct my mistakes.”
To thousands of LSU fans, Cannon’s confession pierced the very heart of their allegiance and adulation of LSU’s greatest sports hero. Like the little boy who pleaded with Shoeless Joe Jackson of the Chicago White Sox on the courthouse steps in the famous “Black Sox” baseball scandal of 1919, all many LSU fans could think of was, “Say it ain’t so, Billy.”
As part of Cannon’s redemption, he took on the job of dentist up at Angola State Penitentiary, an hour’s drive north of Baton Rouge. The guards and inmates, alike, love him up there. Do fans still hold a grudging disappointment with Cannon? Well, when he was introduced a few years ago at Tiger Stadium just after being admitted to the College Football Hall of Fame, the cheering went on and on. Repeated efforts by the stadium announcer to quiet the fans down fell on deaf ears. Neither the President nor the Pope would have gotten such an avid ovation. Billy was back, and all had been forgiven.
Billy Cannon, like few others, has experienced the dramatic highs and lows of being a major sports hero in Louisiana. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that in life, there are no second acts. And Thomas Wolfe wrote that you can’t go home again. Billy Cannon proved them both wrong. And now, he will go home to meet his maker.
“People associate me with football regardless of where I go…except when their tooth hurts. They don’t care whether I played football or not. They just want the toothache to stop.”
Peace and Justice
I don’t normally write a sports column, but a few words would seem appropriate after Alabama’s startling victory this past Monday night in the College Football Championship game. Simply put, love him or hate him, Alabama head coach Nick Saban is the best college coach in football today, and maybe the best college coach ever.
Now, many LSU football fans don’t want to hear this and seem to be consumed by an abhorrence of the former Tiger coach who took LSU to a national championship back in 2003. Saban left the Bayou State for what he considered greener pastures in the NFL, then returned to the Southeast Conference to take the head coaching job at Alabama. Many LSU fans consider Saban a traitor for taking on the post coaching the Tiger’s archrival.
But the proof is in the pudding, and Saban has now won six national titles, tying former Alabama coach Bear Bryant’s all time record. So what’s the reason for Saban’s success? Simply put, he is unquenchable in his approach and commitment to coaching. And losing, in Saban’s mind, is never an option. In fact, one can argue that he hates losing more than he loves winning.
His entire focus is preparation for the next game or next season. I know one of his assistant coaches here in Baton Rouge who told me he felt embarrassed taking off Christmas Day or any other holiday, knowing full well that Coach Saban would be in the football office that day at LSU. His only hobby is coaching football.
A story I heard from a close friend of Saban is an example of his insatiable commitment to coaching. Both Saban and his friend were out to dinner on a Saturday evening with their wives. About 10:30 pm, Saban’s cell phone rang. The coach excused himself from the table and stepped outside the restaurant, staying on the phone for almost 30 minutes.
Later, as they were leaving the restaurant, Saban’s friend asked him was there any problem because of long phone call. No, Saban responded. It was just one of his recruits who was calling to talk about a personal problem. Saban said he gave all his recruits his private cell number and told them he was always available to talk about football or any personal matter. Now how many coaches at major college programs will give out their personal cell phone number to a high school recruit? Simple. A coach like Nick Saban who wants to be number one.
In 2012, Alabama played LSU for the College National Championship at the Superdome in New Orleans. Our family had booked early rooms at the Hilton hotel, which was also the team hotel for LSU. Many of the players were on our same floor, and the night before the game, they were hanging out with girlfriends and cruising throughout the hotel. Nothing rambunctious, but just “hanging out” before the game. One of the players told me they had no team meetings scheduled the night before kick off.
Coach Saban had bused the Alabama team to a movie theater outside of town that was owned by my father-in-law. Saban’s office had called to arrange for a private showing of the World War II movie, “Red Tails,” about a black flying squadron who faced long odds fighting German air attacks. After the movie, Coach Saban went up on the stage and repeated word for word the movie’s rallying cry.
“From the last plane, to the last bullet, to the last minute, to the last man, we fight!”
Last Monday night, Coach Saban’s Alabama team was behind the entire game until the last second of the overtime. They fought and fought as Saban’s intense energy and coaching momentum urged his players on. In Nick Saban’s words, “to the last minute, to the last man, we fight!”
His team did just that, and Alabama continues its reign as America’s premier college football program. These are the reasons why Coach Saban is simply the best college coach today, and perhaps the best there ever was.
“I always ask myself the question, do you like to win or do you hate to lose?" -- Nick Saban
Peace and Justice
Look out sports fans! Maybe, just maybe, baseball is making a big comeback. Now I know we are in the middle of football season. Down my way in the Bayou State, both the Saints and the LSU Tigers are on a roll. And a hyped-up basketball season is just beginning. But baseball is drawing record crowds with the World Series ringing up the largest TV audiences in years.
The luster is off pro football. The “take-a-knee” controversy has turned off thousands of viewers. Just check out all the empty seats at any Sunday NFL game. Quite frankly, many of the pro games are, well, just boring. Then there is the “thug factor” and the statistic that some 50 NFL players have been arrested for domestic violence. To many former sports fans, politics has become their favorite entertaining diversion.
Just what is America’s favorite pastime? Is it politics or baseball? Politics has always been a major spectator sport, particularly here in my home state of Louisiana. But don’t sell baseball short. Not only has baseball been around longer than any of America’s professional team sports, the game’s highs and lows have been injected in national politics almost from the sport’s inception.
Now I’m a diehard baseball fan. I grew up in St. Louis and was in the stadium the Sunday afternoon back on May 2, 1954, when Stan the Man Musial hit five home runs on the same day in a doubleheader. I’m a regular at spring training down in Tampa, where I follow my perennial favorite, the New York Yankees.
Baseball has been well ahead of the NFL in confronting issues of race. The problems of major league baseball have often served as a mirror image of the problems facing America. Its history is both a reflection of this country’s fears and ignorance, and its hopes and promises. Like almost any other cultural phenomenon of such prominence, baseball has served as solace and as a poke to our conscience.
In 1948, the major leagues faced the problem of segregation earlier than the politicians in Washington, DC, did. Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers, and won the rookie of the year award in his first season. It took court cases and sit-ins to get the attention of our political representatives to follow suit.
A few years back, the Tampa Bay Rays were the Cinderella team that went from “worst to first,” winning the American League pennant. Maybe it has something to do with their name. They used to be called the “Devil Rays” and their record was terrible. As soon as they dropped the word “Devil,” they became victorious overnight. Is it baseball pure and simple, or is the Religious Right involved?
Maybe it’s impossible to get away from campaigns and politics by focusing on the current World Series, but I’m going to give it a shot. The Fox network carried many major league games this season. In the National League, everyone, even the pitchers, get an equal chance to bat. Will Fox News say that the National Leaguers are socialists? Will their commentators argue they should call some home runs out if they are too far to the left? And I guess you can’t blame the Democrats from bemoaning that every time someone steals a base, they get reminded of the 2000 presidential election.
There is also a lesson to be learned from Babe Ruth as Congress is considering limiting executive pay and bonuses of corporations who received bailout money. When the Babe was asked how he could justify making more money than the President, he shrugged off the question by answering, “I had a better year.”
I suppose one of the biggest differences between these two spectator sports is the sense of optimism that baseball brings every spring. The crack of the bat, a pop fly against a blue sky, and the green grass seem to offer a sense of renewal. It harkens back to the essence of youth and heroes of the past, and you feel that almost anything is possible in the coming season. But in today’s political climate, there is little thought of great statesmen and principled political figures. Political courage today is too often defined by poll watching and sticking a wet finger to the wind.
So when the TV remote offers a choice of the NFL, politics or baseball in the coming week, I’ll choose the great American pastime. It’s baseball hands down. Like a fellow once said: “The difference between politics and baseball is that in baseball, when you are caught stealing, you’re out.”
Peace and Justice
Jim Brown is a guest contributor to GCN news. His views and opinions, if expressed, are his own. His column appears each week in numerous newspapers throughout the nation and on websites worldwide. You can read all his past columns and see continuing updates at http://www.jimbrownusa.com. You can also hear Jim’s nationally syndicated radio show, Common Sense, each Sunday morning from 9:00 am till 11:00 am Central Time on the Genesis Communication Network.