THE ORDEAL OF THE CANNONS : Billy Jr. Is the Son of a Famous Father Now in Prison and He Is Lucky to Have Survived Severe Neck Injury
It is six months later and Billy Cannon Jr. says he still feels numbness; pins and needles tingling in both thumbs.
But can there be anything so numbing as these past two years, when tragedy plundered one of Louisiana’s sports symbols, the very name of Cannon?
Before the tragedies, Billy Cannon Sr., the onetime Heisman Trophy winner, was a local hero of extraordinary proportions. His son, Billy Cannon Jr., was the multitalented athlete sought by the New York Yankees’ George Steinbrenner and, later, by the Dallas Cowboys’ Tom Landry.
In July 1983, Billy Cannon Sr., a 46-year-old Baton Rouge orthodontist, was imprisoned for being a key figure in a $4.75 million counterfeiting scheme.
And now Billy Cannon Jr. is 23 and, it seems, his football career is over. He is a linebacker who was selected in the first round of last year’s draft by the Dallas Cowboys, selected 25th overall, two spots before the Redskins had planned to make him their top pick.
However, Cannon suffered a spinal injury while tackling New Orleans Saints running back Wayne Wilson Oct. 21 at Texas Stadium.
“I remember falling to the turf. I couldn’t feel anything. Not a thing. Everything went numb,” Cannon said.
“Everything happened real fast,” he went on. “When I looked up from the turf, I saw all those faces. (Cornerback) Everson Walls was leaning forward trying to wake me up. He told me later that my eyelids were jumping up and down.”
Cannon is now well enough to lift weights and to play racquetball. However, team doctors say that because of damage to two vertebrae in the neck region and because Cannon also suffers from a narrowing at the top of his spinal column, a congenital defect, he might risk a more severe injury, such as paralysis, if he plays again.
This fact was so cold and hard that the decision to quit football was easy for Cannon.
Billy Cannon Jr. had been forced to cope with such trying times before. Such as back in July 1983, when his father became known for something other than the 89-yard punt return for a touchdown that enabled Louisiana State to defeat Ole Miss, 7-3, and allowed Cannon to win the Heisman Trophy in 1959.
Billy Cannon Sr. pleaded guilty to one charge of conspiracy and possession of counterfeit $100 Federal Reserve notes and is now serving a five-year sentence in a minimum-security federal prison in Texarkana, Texas.
At the time of his arrest, friends were shocked when Cannon admitted to having financed the initial engraving and printing scheme to escape a cash flow problem. Cannon had tried to sell several million dollars worth of the counterfeit money to a Secret Service undercover agent.
He plea-bargained with prosecutors and cooperated with authorities who dug up three ice chests filled with the bogus $100 bills. One chest was buried on a piece of property owned by Cannon; two other chests were buried near his office.
The sentence imposed upon Cannon was the maximum under the single charge. And even the College Football Hall of Fame chose to punish Cannon, denying him induction because of his guilty plea.
Cannon received a call in Texarkana nearly a month ago from his son, saying he had learned that Cowboys doctors would not pass him in a physical, despite the fact he had regained so much strength in his 6-foot-4, 231-pound frame.
“I remember my dad gave one of his better quotes,” the younger Cannon said. “He said, ‘It’s still better than holding a wet mule out in the rain.’ I know my father is disappointed that my career ended. But, you know, I’m a lot like my daddy; I never look back.
“We both look ahead at things. My daddy made a mistake and he knows it. He’s paying for it now. He goes before the parole board at the beginning of May. When he gets out, it will help things a lot, especially for my mother. Things will go back to being like they were.
“I’ve been up there (at the Texarkana prison) two or three times. My father and I have had good talks. It’s no trauma for me to go up there. We’ve never talked about where he was or why he did it. We talk about the future.”
Cannon sits in the living room of his new four-bedroom house in Baton Rouge. The atmosphere there seems filled with a sense of pragmatism, about the injury, about the past and about the future.
His wife, Rise, admits she was relieved at the doctors’ decision. “Every time Billy would have been at practice,” she said, “I would have worried that something bad had happened every time the phone rang.”
“I feel more sorry for Dallas than for me,” he said. “How many 23-year-olds can say that they own two houses--this one and the one I’m trying to sell in Dallas? I’ve got a pretty good start on life.
“Yeah, we had dreams of playing for the Cowboys and having a ranch there. We had our dreams. (But) another dream was coming back here. All of my friends are here. I was born here. I love the swamps.”
And then comes the reasoning that is part rationale, part saving grace. For Billy Cannon Jr., this is the bottom line: “It’s not like I’m paralyzed and in a wheelchair,” he said.
Cannon said he did not have a guaranteed contract. He collected his estimated $400,000 signing bonus and his estimated one-year rookie salary of $150,000. He also will collect $65,000 this year because of the league’s standard injury protection clause. Cannon said he will not collect the rest of his three-year contract.
Cannon’s biggest regret is that he did not insure himself, as many athletes do. Gil Brandt, the Cowboys’ vice president-personnel, said he even handed a Lloyd’s of London card to Cannon and his attorney at the time of contract negotiations.
“I was going to do it (with Lloyd’s), but it was real expensive--something like $10,000-$12,000 a year,” Cannon said. “It’s the biggest mistake I’ve ever made.”
Rise Cannon said with a sigh, “We tried to convince Billy to do it. But, c’est la vie .”
In Dallas, Cowboys Coach Tom Landry said, “I’m sure this is a struggle for Billy. It’s always difficult to deal with human setbacks, especially with the family. But the kid handles it so well. He went through Texas A&M; at a time when he knew that people were looking at him (at the time of his father’s arrest) and he knew what they were all thinking.”
Cannon alternated playing time at right outside linebacker with Anthony Dickerson last season. He was expected to start this season. “It almost seems like I never played with the Cowboys,” Cannon said.
Billy Cannon Jr. truly has been at the top for a long time.
Five years ago, the New York Yankees drafted Cannon, a shortstop-outfielder, in the first round of the draft even after his father had telegrammed each major league team saying his son intended to attend Texas A&M; University to play football and not to waste a first-round pick.
The Yankees still chose Cannon, then 18, and offered him an estimated $300,000 signing bonus. They flew Cannon and his parents to New York, took them to dinner, to a game and to see Mickey Rooney in the stage play “Sugar Babies.”
Steinbrenner, the Yankees’ owner, wanted Cannon very much. “He was a big-name, glamor boy,” said Bill Bergesch, at the time the Yankees’ director of player operations and now general manager of the Cincinnati Reds.
Steinbrenner believed in more than name identification, however. He believed that the greatness of Billy Cannon Jr. was carried in his genes.
“Of course, George Steinbrenner puts a lot of faith in breeding. I guess that comes from his interest in race horses,” Bergesch says.
The Yankees brought Cannon to New York for a press conference to announce his signing, Bergesch recalled. However, then-baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn voided the signing, claiming that the telegram sent to each team had been misleading. So Cannon went to Texas A&M;, playing baseball only in the summer.
A funny thing happened just the other day. Several weeks after Cannon found out he couldn’t play football again, the Pittsburgh Pirates called him.
“I think he felt quite happy that somebody felt like he had some worth,” said Carlton (Buzzy) Keller, the Pirates’ scout who contacted Cannon. “Right now, there is no way we would look at him. He has to get doctor’s clearance and he’s still not in shape. But we just wanted to know if he had any interest in playing baseball again.”
Cannon said he’s not certain if he does. “I’m looking at baseball, I’m not leaning toward it. . . . Football always came easier; just go out and play hard. I was always too aggressive in baseball. I wanted to swing at every pitch.”
Cannon feels he would not risk further spinal damage by playing baseball. Neither Dallas team physicians nor Cannon’s private physician returned calls.
“It depends on what kind of contract they offer me,” Cannon said of baseball. “I won’t sit playing in the minors for three or four years. I won’t play for peanuts.”
In this respect, Cannon seems like the star who has fallen off the top of the sports ladder and, with baseball, is now grabbing for the bottom rung. Only he doesn’t seem to realize it.
“Billy will have to readjust his thinking now,” Bergesch says. “I’m sure no one out there in baseball will be waving big dollars at him. He’s unproven now. . . . But certainly if he’s able to play physically, we’d give him a call. He’s only one year out of college and we have a lot of players on the Reds who are that age. But he’d have to move up in a hurry now.”
The bond between Billy Cannon Jr. and his father goes beyond the name.
Before LSU-Ole Miss games, they still show on television a film of the 89-yard punt return by the elder Cannon. And his son talks of how he returned a punt 89 yards for a touchdown to help his Broadmoor High team defeat his father’s alma mater, Istrouma High.
He talks of how he remembers his father playing in two Super Bowls during his time with the Oilers, Raiders and Chiefs. “I remember they lost to Green Bay in one Super Bowl and I remember being mad because if they had won, my father had said he would build a swimming pool at our house,” Cannon said.
The future seems of little concern to Billy Cannon Jr. Youth is his ally. “I’m getting a boat . . . a 16-foot boat decked out to be a bass boat for swamps and canals.
“There’s a lot I can do now,” he said. “Baseball; I could finish my (building construction) degree--I’m one year from graduating. Daddy will be getting out soon and I could work for him. Right now, I’m working in the oil business with a friend. His older brother owns the company.”
The Cannons are only the third father-son combination to be drafted in the first round of the NFL draft, following Dub and Bert Jones and Ed and Brad Budde.
“Over the last five years, I’ve been around George Steinbrenner, Jackie Sherill (coach at Texas A&M;), Coach Landry, but it doesn’t all seem big-time to me,” Cannon said. “They all seemed like regular people to me. Maybe not being around them for a few years might change my view. I’ve been up there for so long.”
The late-afternoon light blazed through the glass door like Louisiana Lightning. Four Australian cattle dogs roamed the back. For Billy Cannon Jr., this is home.
“ ‘Bout the only thing I’ve done since I got back from Dallas is build that doghouse,” Cannon said.
Cannon has four sisters and no brothers. Will there be a Billy Cannon III, came the question?
Rise Cannon said, “No. It would be too confusing.”
Billy Cannon Jr. said, “No way. I would never do that.” As husband and wife stared at each other, both laughed. There seemed no doubt. The tale of Billy Cannon ends here.