Former LSU legend Billy Cannon, the first major rookie to sign with the American Football League and the subject of an historic court decision, died Sunday morning at his home.
He was 80.
Cannon was a star running back at LSU, where he led the Tigers to an undefeated season and a national championship in 1958 and where he won the Heisman Trophy a year later when he returned a punt 89 yards — breaking seven tackles en route to the “Halloween Run” — to beat No. 3 ranked Mississippi. He and teammate Warren Rabb later made a game-saving stop at the goal line with 18 seconds left to preserve the 7-3 win.
Twice an All-American, Cannon is the lone Heisman Trophy winner in LSU history. The school later retired his number 20 jersey.
Cannon was the first overall pick in the 1960 AFL draft as a territorial choice of the Houston Oilers. But he was the first overall pick of the NFL, too, with the Los Angles Rams choosing him, and that became a problem. Reason: He’d signed a three-year deal with the Rams before agreeing to a contract with Houston that made him the first $100,000 football player.
The Rams sued, claiming that Cannon was bound to their contract and could not sign with Houston, and that led to a court battle that the Oilers not only won but that helped bring legitimacy to the new league.
Cannon played the next 10 seasons for the Oilers and Oakland Raiders before ending his career one year later in the NFL with the Kansas City Chiefs.
Cannon’s pro career began as a halfback, with the former LSU star leading the AFL in rushing and all-purpose yards in 1961. A four-time all-AFL choice, he was named MVP of the first two AFL championship games, both of which the Oilers won.
But he was moved to fullback and tight end when he joined the Raiders, where he won another league title in 1967 and played in Super Bowl II. A year later, he caught six touchdown passes, including a 48-yarder in the second quarter of the infamous “Heidi Game.”
Cannon was inducted into the LSU Hall of Fame in 1975, the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame in 1976 and the College Football Hall of Fame in 2008.
AFL historian Todd Tobias of talesfromtheamericanfootballleague.com posted notice of Cannon’s death, along with a litany of his trading cards (including several that were autographed). You can find them there … or you can find them here, thanks to Todd: