Cannon takes winding road to Hall of Fame
NEW YORK -- Billy Cannon has lived through the highest highs and lowest lows.
As an electrifying running back at LSU, he became an All-American, a Heisman Trophy winner and a national champion. He was smart enough to become a dentist and misguided enough to become a bankrupt convicted felon.
His newest title: member of the College Football Hall of Fame.
Twenty-two years after being released from prison and 11 since he was unemployed and broke, Cannon's life is in order and his greatest accomplishments are being celebrated.
"I don't look back. They might be gaining on me," Cannon said after a news conference with 12 other players and two coaches who were inducted into the Hall of Fame at the National Football Foundation awards banquet Tuesday night.
"I really am enjoying it for the moment. It's been a great ride."
Joining the 72-year-old Cannon in this year's Hall of Fame class were Troy Aikman and Thurman Thomas, two Super Bowl heroes and recent inductees into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Aikman was a star quarterback at UCLA and Thomas was a standout runner for Oklahoma State.
The other players were Don McPherson of Syracuse, Jim Dombrowski of Virginia, Pat Fitzgerald of Northwestern, Wilber Marshall of Florida, Jay Novacek of Wyoming, Dave Parks of Texas Tech, Randall McDaniel of Arizona State, Ron Simmons of Florida State, Rueben Mayes of Washington State and Arnold Tucker of Army.
John Cooper and Lou Holtz were elected as coaches. Cooper is the only coach to win a Rose Bowl with a Pac-10 school (Arizona State) and Big Ten school (Ohio State).
Holtz is the only coach to guide six schools to a bowl game, and he led Notre Dame to its last national championship in 1988.
"When I heard I was going to the Hall of Fame, I foolishly thought, 'Am I going in as a player or a coach?' Holtz deadpanned. "I would have been the first third-teamer to go into the Hall of Fame."
Cannon led LSU to a national championship in 1958 and won the Heisman in 1959, wrapping up the award with one of the most memorable plays in Southeastern Conference history. His 89-yard punt return for a touchdown on Halloween night helped the Tigers beat rival Mississippi 7-3.
He went on to become a star in the American Football League with the Houston Oilers and Oakland Raiders, and even set himself up for a fine life after football by going to dental school.
In 1983, Cannon was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame, but never was inducted.
The honor was rescinded after he was arrested on federal counterfeiting charges. Cannon pleaded guilty and was sentenced to five years in federal prison in 1983. He served 2½ years.
"It's the old penthouse, outhouse story," Cannon said.
Cannon was angry at first when the Hall turned it's back on him, but never held a grudge and never "lost sleep" wondering if he would get another chance.
But he said, "I'm very happy that it happened."
"I thank the people who voted for me the first time. And I tremendously thank the people who voted me in the second time."
The Hall of Fame induction comes less than a month after Cannon received an honor that just might trump it. During the LSU-Mississippi game in Baton Rouge, Cannon's No. 20 was unveiled on the facade of an upper deck during a ceremony honoring the '58 championship team. The jersey number had already been retired, but now it was part of the stadium where Cannon, who grew up in Baton Rouge, had been going for 60 years.
"Until they dropped the drape in the stadium, I didn't know it. It was a shock to me," Cannon said.
He received a thunderous ovation from more than 90,000 at Tiger Stadium that day.
"The people of Louisiana are very quick to love and also very quick to forgive," he said.
Also honored by the National Football Foundation on Tuesday were former Senator and astronaut John Glenn, recipient of the NFF's Gold Medal, and billionaire philanthropist and oilman T. Boone Pickens, given the Distinguished American Award.
Even Cannon couldn't help but find irony of his inclusion on the dais with such a group.
"You heard all about guidance, leadership, doing the right thing, and there's a convicted felon sitting in the middle of them," Cannon said with smile. "One of the reasons I'm here today: I did the crime, I did the time, and I haven't had a problem since. Not even a speeding ticket."
Cannon did declare for bankruptcy in 1995. Out of work in 1997, he returned to prison -- but this time it was his choice.
He's been working as a dentist at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, fixing teeth and acting as a positive example for the inmates.
"I get to talk to them all when they come in and when they leave," he said. "I say, 'You know you can make it.' And they say, 'You made it Doc. We got a shot, don't we?' I say, 'Don't waste it."
Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press
This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index