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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

April 28, 1985|GARY POMERANTZ | Washington Post

BATON ROUGE, La. — 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."

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