Aug 2oo9 – Thanks, Billy
I have been an LSU football fan for almost as long as I can remember. When I was a little boy my Dad would tell me of the glory days of LSU football, the days when Billy Cannon and the Chinese Bandits roamed the confines of Tiger Stadium. In those days before ESPN and cable television to view their exploits, Baton Rouge was the Mecca of college football. I do not remember those days, I was born the year LSU won their only national championship and pray I live long enough to see one and remember it. By the time I had reached ten years old, Billy Cannon still played pro football but was near the end of his professional career. In fact, I never saw him play a single down as a running back, the position he played when he led LSU to that national championship and one he played when he won the 1959 Heisman Trophy. By the time I watched him play he was a tight end. I saw Billy Cannon score only one touchdown, a short pass reception in a 56-7 route of the Houston Oilers while Billy was playing for the Oakland Raiders. I never saw those impossible moves and that rare combination of speed and strength.
That did not diminish the images that flashed through my boyhood mind of the great Billy Cannon, resplendent in his soiled purple and gold uniform coming around end, fending off a defender with a crisp forearm and springing into the end zone and scoring six more for the Tigers as the band struck up “Touchdown for LSU.”
It was at about this time, for my eleventh birthday, Memorial Day, 1969, that my parents gave me one of the best presents I have ever received: my very own copy of Peter Finney’s classic “75 Years of Fighting Tiger Football.” What a present it was! The book was in my school library and I had managed to check it out only once. I kept the book, renewing my check out until I could check it out no more. I poured over every page of that book. I was enthralled at the exploits of former Tiger greats: F.E. “Doc” Fenton, Pinky Rohm, Gaynell Tinsley, Y.A. Title, Steve Van Buren and many others. But my favorite part of that book was, and remains, the chapter on “THE” season…1958. The year the LSU Tigers stunned the football world and won the National championship after a mediocre 5-5-0 record the year before. My favorite player from that great team that I never saw play was, of course, Billy Cannon.
My grandparents had bought a house in Sherwood Forest sometime in the late 1960s and their house faced the back of Billy Cannon’s house. I couldn’t believe it, what fortune! I would be able to some day see my hero! After I got that book for my birthday I would take it with me every time we visited my grandparents on the hope that I would see Billy Cannon and he would autograph my book for me. How many times we went to my grandparent’s house and I never saw Mr. Cannon, I’ll never know. All I remember is the one day we drove up to my grandparent’s house and there he was, cutting his grass in what was a very large backyard at the time. I couldn’t believe it, what luck! My mother and grandmother prodded me to go ask him to autograph my book. I was so scared. I remember watching him cut the grass from my grandmother’s front window. I finally got the courage up because, who knows when I might get another chance for Billy Cannon’s autograph. It was now or never.
I took my book and crossed Bellrose Drive with butterflies in my belly and walked up to the six-foot chain-link fence that enclosed his yard, grabbed the links of the fence in my hands and began to rattle the it and yell, “Mr. Cannon!, Mr. Cannon!” Billy Cannon, who I never imagined would be as big as he was, he seemed so large to me, looked over at me, turned off his lawn mower and walked to a gate that was in one corner of the yard. My heart was pounding. Billy opened the gate and I have absolutely no recollection of what he said or what I said, but I am sure I asked him for his autograph. He said yes and then, what was already a dream come true for a little boy just got far better than I had ever dreamed. Billy Cannon took me into his home and showed me his trophy case! There, in the center of the trophy case which made up one whole wall of his front hallway was his 1959 Heisman Trophy. This man had more trophies than were in the trophy case of my school! Atop the case were his helmets, the now retired bright yellow LSU #20, the Houston Oilers, Oakland Raiders and Kansas City Chiefs.
As I stood there I dreamed a boy’s dream of glory days on the gridiron, of slashing through the line and bursting into the end zone to score a touchdown for my beloved LSU Tigers. Reality would prove to be another thing and I would, of course, never even play football at the college level. But for a few moments standing there in Billy Cannon’s house, in awe at the hardware before me that testified of his athletic prowess, the likes of which few would ever achieve, I dreamed a dream that, I must admit, still holds an appeal to it.
The sheer joy of the moment was all too brief and Mr. Cannon patted me on the head and sent me on my way to revel in the moment of my own boyish triumph. As I walked across his backyard and back to my grandmother’s house, I peered inside the cover of my prized book and there it was, “To Ronnie, Best Wishes, Billy Cannon.” Simple, even stereotypical as far as autographs go, but this was not ordinary autograph, it was my childhood hero’s autograph and I had not only gotten the autograph, I got a few minutes of my hero’s time. I will never forget that Billy Cannon didn’t have to do that. He didn’t even have to sign the book but he took the time, maybe he needed the break from mowing, who knows. The fact remains, he made a kid’s dream come true and he didn’t want anything for it. There are few heroes like that anymore.
I recently brought this story up to my mother and she recalled how excited I was when I got back to my grandmother’s house. I would not shut-up and talked non-stop. She said she wondered if I would ever take a breath again. She and my grandmother had sat and worried that perhaps Billy Cannon wouldn’t have the time to sign a book for a kid who was pestering him on his own time. As a father myself now, I can understand their concern. A kid’s feelings can be hurt so easy and a few mean words from a kid’s hero would be devastating.
I have to tell you, the thought that I wouldn’t get that autograph ever crossed my mind. The thought that I would stand in Billy Cannon’s house and gawk at his Heisman Trophy never crossed my mind either. But, this was not to be an ordinary day and I would be treated with respect and appreciation, after all, we’re talking about my hero, Billy Cannon. He is still my all-time favorite football player and has insured that I will be now and forever a faithful follower of LSU Fighting Tiger Football.
By the way, I never have seen Billy Cannon cutting his grass since that day.