'Hey Billy Cannon . . . run through us now'
Four years ago, the Jackson Touchdown Club celebrated the 50-year anniversary of the famous 1959 Ole Miss-LSU game. The late, great Paul Dietzel and Billy Cannon were on hand. So were nine 1959 Ole Miss Rebels. This was my column from that night. Your Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum will celebrate the 1959 Rebels on Oct. 17. Find links and information below.
NINE 1959 Ole Miss Rebels, four seated and five standing, posed for photographers Tuesday night before the Jackson Touchdown Club’s weekly meeting.
Across the room, behind the photographers, Billy Cannon and Paul Dietzel watched their old adversaries smile for the camera. That’s when Marvin Terrell, one of the Rebels, broke up everybody in the room, including Cannon.
“Come on, Billy, let’s see if you can run through us now!” Terrell bellowed.
The old Rebels, to a man, doubled over in laughter. Fifty years later, they can laugh. But one wonders, as one spends time with them through the years, if they might at times be laughing through tears.
A quick history lesson for those who don’t know the story about the most famous football game in Deep South history, which happened 50 years ago Saturday night. Both teams were unbeaten. LSU, the defending national champion, was No. 1, Ole Miss No. 3. It was a damp night at Tiger Stadium and Ole Miss led LSU 3-0 when Jake Gibbs launched a 47-yard punt that bounced once and settled into Cannon’s hands. Cannon, the biggest, fastest player on the LSU team, proceeded to race 89 yards, shaking off several tacklers for a touchdown. LSU, on the strength of a last-minute goal-line stand, won 7-3. The two teams played two months later in the Sugar Bowl. Ole Miss won 21-0.
Now then, here’s what else you should know. That Ole Miss team outscored opponents 350-21. The defense never gave up a single touchdown drive. Several years ago, Jeff Sagarin, the football ratings guru, ranked the greatest college football teams of all time. That Ole Miss team ranked No. 3. And you know the rest of it. Had it not been for that one defeat, that one punt return, that one play, that Ole Miss team might well rank as the greatest college team of all time. Seriously, the best ever. The numbers are staggering. They scored more than 33 points a game; they allowed fewer than two. In the rematch, Ole Miss held LSU to only 75 yards total offense and never let the Tigers cross the Ole Miss 38-yard line.
Those 1959 Rebels have become successful, almost to a man. Years ago, fullback Charlie Flowers pointed out a team photo in Billy Brewer’s home.
“Forty-eight of the 49 in this photo graduated,” Flowers said, and then he started pointing to each one, with brief descriptions, like “doctor, lawyer, school superintendent, athletic director, university dean, insurance company owner, great coach” and on and on and on. It was astounding, really.
They have achieved so much, yet they are, almost to a man, still haunted, quite literally, by that Halloween night, that one play.
“Hardly a day goes by I don’t think about it,” says Terrell, who went on to become a pro football all-star. “Heck, I still dream about it.”
Says ex-Ole Miss chancellor Robert Khayat, also a standout on that team, “You don’t ever get over something like that. Believe me, I’ve tried to forget about it. I never will.”
Asked if he believes the one play, Cannon’s fabled run, keeps that Ole Miss team from being recognized as college football’s greatest ever, Khayat responded, “I don’t see how there could be one rated higher when you look at the scores.”
Says the 85-year-old Dietzel, the LSU coach, “I’ve never thought about it that way, but they were an awfully good team, so much bigger than we were and so fast.”
You would pick all of them out as ex-jocks. Cannon is a huge, broad-shouldered, thick-necked man, with close-cropped hair. You still wouldn’t want to tackle him.
Gibbs, who punted the ball to Cannon (on third down) and had the last shot at him, never seems to age. He turns 71 next week but you’d never know it to look at him.
Invariably, Cannon and Gibbs were asked about the play, surely among the three or four most famous ever.
“I meant to kick it out of bounds,” Gibbs said. “I never meant to kick it to him.”
“It bounced right to me,” said Cannon, who broke Dietzel’s rule by fielding a punt inside his own 15.
Then he broke Ole Miss hearts. Some, forever.