On October 31, 1959 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Cannon cemented himself not only into the LSU history books, but as the best college football player in the country when the Tigers hosted the Ole Miss Rebels in Tiger Stadium.
With about 10 minutes left in fourth quarter, Ole Miss was leading, 3-0. LSU legend Billy Cannon didn’t take the advice of his coach and fielded a punt that was supposed to go out of bounds. Cannon went on to make everyone miss on his way to an 89-yard punt return for a touchdown.
That score gave LSU a 7-3 lead and paved the way for the Tigers to win the football game, their seventh win of the season.
Cannon’s performance in this game, as well as the rest of the season, led to his name being called during the 1959 Heisman Trophy Ceremony in New York.
There are quite a few reasons why this play is so iconic, on top of the fact that it was genuinely a great play involving one of the top players in the country making an entire special teams unit look silly.
1. Top-5 Match-Up
Entering Halloween night, the LSU Tigers were 6-0 and the top-ranked team in the country after winning the national championship the previous season. The Ole Miss Rebels were also a top team, ranked third in the country, and led by head coach Johnny Vaught.
The Southeastern Conference was extremely good during the 1959 season with seven different SEC schools ranked inside the AP Top 10 at some point that year. LSU was the only team to hold the top spot, though, while Ole Miss reached second in the AP Poll.
If LSU was looking to repeat at national champions, this was a must win and a tough game since the Rebels were one of the best teams in the country.
2. Vaught’s Vaunted Defense
There was a reason the punt return was so important in this game. During the 1959 season, Ole Miss allowed just 21 points. One of those touchdowns came on this play, which was the only points the Tigers scored in the game.
Before this game, the Rebels’ defense had allowed just seven points in six games. Their only touchdown allowed was in a 53-7 blowout of Tulane in their fifth game of the season. This defense was obviously tough to score on, so Cannon scoring when the defense wasn’t on the field is huge for the team and led to their win.
Thanks to Heisman Trophy winner Billy Cannon’s heroics, this is the only loss Ole Miss would suffer on the season and would have them go down as one of the best teams to never win a national championship. They would finish the season 10-1, including a 21-0 revenge win over LSU in the Sugar Bowl.
3. Billy Cannon’s Heisman Moment
Cannon was definitely one of the best players in the country before this game, but he solidified it the second he stepped into the end zone and gave the Tigers the lead. This play was so iconic, that 60 years later it is still being remembered and talked about as one of the program’s greatest ever.
Cannon, who finished second in Heisman voting the previous season, became the first Heisman Trophy winner in LSU football history and still the only one to win the trophy.
Every Heisman winner has their signature “Heisman Moment” when everyone realizes he’s the guy who will hoist the trophy, and this was Cannon’s moment.
For some players, their moment may be a sequence of one game like when Mark Ingram rushed for 246 yards against South Carolina in 2009. Or it could be a single play, like when Reggie Bush went around his back with the football against Fresno State in 2005.
4. All Phases of the Game
Something that isn’t talked about is how Cannon didn’t just help the team with this punt return. He was their top offensive weapon at running back and was the Offensive Player of the Year in the conference. But he was also playing both ways as a linebacker.
Late in the game with Ole Miss close to the goal line and threatening to take back the lead, Cannon was at middle linebacker when the Tigers made a goal-line stand. This was at a time when playing both ways was much more common than today, but it is still amazing that he was able to impact the game so consistently no matter what phase of the game it was
Here’s how LSU Athletics remembers that night:
“Cannon put in a full night. He was the game’s leading rusher (48 yards on 12 carries, a 4.0 average); returned three punts for 102 yards; punted four times for a 42.0 average; and was in on a half-dozen tackles, including the one that saved the gamed at the LSU 1. He, too, is incredulous at the time span, reflecting, ‘Where did it all go? Little did any of us know we were doing something then that we’d still be talking about 50 years later.'”
5. Breaking His Coach’s Rule
One of the funniest parts about the Halloween Run is it technically shouldn’t have happened. LSU head coach Paul Dietzel had a rule to never field a punt deep in their own territory. So anything inside the 15-yard line, Cannon was supposed to stay away.
Well, that obviously isn’t what happened. At the 11-yard line, Cannon picked the ball up off a bounce and was off. Apparently, Dietzel was yelling “No! No! No!” which eventually turned into him yelling “Go! Go! Go!”
Cannon’s College Football Hall of Fame career came to a close after the 1959 season. He was drafted with the first overall pick in the 1960 NFL Draft. But instead, Cannon chose to play for the AFL’s Houston Oilers, setting the record for most all-purpose yards in a single game (373). He played professionally from 1960 until 1970 for the Oilers, Lose Angeles Raiders, and Kansas City Chiefs.
Cannon died in his sleep back on May 20, 2018 at the age of 80, but his legend in Baton Rouge will live on forever. There were so many iconic moments, but none were bigger than the fabled Halloween Run.