Published on October 29th, 2009 | by Carver Rayburn0
Billy Cannon’s Run: Halloween classic still overshadows Rebels’ National Championship 50 years later
They won a National Championship. But then, there was that Halloween night in Baton Rouge.
The game became an instant classic. Ole Miss fans would rather forget that evening which took place 50 years ago Saturday. LSU fans revel in grandiose fashion for this folklore of college football known as “Billy Cannon’s Run”.
A gathering of eight Ole Miss Rebels and two LSU Tigers from the teams in 1959 took place at the Jackson Touchdown Club this past Tuesday. A few notables from the teams included former Rebels Jake Gibbs, Robert Khayat, Marvin Terrell, Charlie Flowers, Warner Alford, Bobby Ray Franklin, and Billy Ray Adams to name a few. LSU, of course, was represented by Mr. Billy Cannon himself and legendary coach Paul Dietzel.
While posing for a team picture, Terrell challenged to Cannon to “try and run past them now,” which resulted in a room full of laughter. Was Terrell joking? This band of Rebels looked ready to play, even into their 70s.
Cannon and Gibbs, the punter and punt returner, took time to pose for a photo shaking hands. There was a time, not too long ago, when both Cannon and Gibbs would have been reprimanded for doing such a thing. This is LSU and Ole Miss. To hell with LSU.
The event was bittersweet for Madison resident Billy Ray Adams. Adams, was about to enter the game, his first of the season as a sophomore, to play cornerback. Then Cannon ran right by him. Coach John Vaught simply told him, “Well, I guess you better go sit down.”
Wreck detours Adams’ career
Adams had left the Jackson Touchdown Club’s banquet that night five decades ago and was on his way to catch a plane to be on the Bob Hope Show when his life took a dramatic turn.
Leaving Jackson, the Columbus native was traveling up the Natchez Trace when he fell asleep behind the wheel, flipped his car, and laid severely injured in the woods for nearly three hours before help arrived.
The injuries, which included a ruptured spleen, torn knee, six broken ribs, and multiple wounds in his lower back, would keep Adams from ever playing football again.
He had been drafted by the San Francisco 49ers, but never got the chance to put on a uniform.
He made do, however, coaching at a few high schools before relocating with his wife D.J. to Jackson, becoming a successful insurance agent and eventually moving to Madison 20 years ago.
The 11th of 12 children in a family well below the poverty line, Adams became resilient to life’s hardships at an early age. He was the only one to graduate high school and, of course, college.
“The first time I had an indoor toilet was when I went to school at Ole Miss,” he said.
In high school, Adams was even shunned by a recruiter from Auburn who refused to go inside the family’s home.
“It didn’t take too much time to mark Auburn off the list,” Adams said.
History could have easily taken a different course. Not so much for Adams, but for a teammate of his from the Mississippi Delta who will be at the dinner.
Franklin Chooses Rebs Over Dogs
If history had gone differently for Bobby Franklin, the 1959 Ole Miss football squad might not have won a national championship by defeating LSU 21-0 in the Sugar Bowl; that same band of Rebels might not have lost to LSU in the Halloween Classic where Billy Cannon made his run; and two Super Bowl rings resting on the massive hands of a quarterback from Ole Miss might have never been a reality.
A personal invite to the annual Egg Bowl by Mississippi State head coach Darryl Royal was accepted by Clarksdale native Bobby Ray Franklin in 1956. Royal knew Franklin was a big Ole Miss fan and that the young Delta athlete had his head set on playing for the Rebels. He took a chance, and that chance, Franklin said, almost paid off.
The game that year was bitter cold. Franklin attended the game in nothing but blue jeans and a letter jacket.
“Coach Royal gave me his overcoat to wear during the game,” Franklin said. “You don’t hear that too much. A coach giving up his jacket during a game for a recruit.”
That simple gesture prompted Franklin to commit to Mississippi State after the game.
When word reached Oxford a few weeks later, Johnny Vaught and company were not too pleased. After all, this was a kid from Clarksdale, home of Ole Miss great, Charlie Conerly.
After a weekend visit to Ole Miss, Franklin became so upset he didn’t even make it to church on Sunday. He wanted to go to Ole Miss but he had already committed to Mississippi State.
After hours of working up the courage, he made the call to Coach Royal. What he heard from the coach made for a lifetime of respect for the man. Royal simply told Franklin, ‘You win some, you lose some, Bobby. Don’t worry about it.’
Flash forward four years and Franklin was the senior quarterback, along with Jake Gibbs, for Ole Miss as they entered the 1959 season.
The team would produce 23 players who went on to the NFL. One of those players, Gene Hickerson, was inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame just two years ago. Franklin gave his induction speech.
“Gene was rolled out on the stage by four other running backs including Jim Brown,” a teary-eyed Franklin said. “I had rehearsed that speech four times a day for over five months. My son wrote it, but I had to practice in order to keep from breaking down.”
Everyone Remembers “The Run”
The No. 3 ranked Rebels had bonded from the get-go that year and entered a howdown with No. 1 LSU in Baton Rouge on Halloween night.
The hype before the game in Oxford was enormous and leaflets were dropped on the Rebels practice field twice that week calling the team “a bunch of sissies,” Franklin recalled.
There were no tickets to be found. Some fans desperate enough to get into the game made calls to friends, like Franklin. One put on an official’s uniform to gain access to the game.
“If you look at the game tape, when Billy is making his run, there is an official running stride for stride with him pumping his fists in the air,” Franklin said. “That guy, obviously, was an LSU fan.”
Coach Vaught had decided before the game to punt on third down anytime his squad had the ball in their own territory. By doing this, he believed he minimized the chances for LSU to score by not turning the ball over in their own territory.
Leading 3-0 after a Robert Khayat (the former Ole Miss Chancellor) field goal, the Rebels had the ball late in the third quarter. The drive stalled and Franklin exited the game on third down while Jake Gibbs was sent out to punt. Franklin heard a roar from the bench and jumped up to see what was happening.
“The punt had actually bounced at the 15 and Billy was running from the 10 where it bounced right into his hands while he was in full stride,” Franklin said in a very menial tone. “Then, it bounced back to him and he turned and started his run.”
That run would go down as one of the best in college football history.
Cannon broke seven tackles on his way to a touchdown. The LSU Tigers won that night, 7-3.
The two teams would meet again later in the year with a national championship on the line.
Final score of that game? Ole Miss 21, LSU 0.
Franklin would be drafted into the NFL after that season by the Cleveland Browns where he played for seven years. The still-young football fanatic then entered coaching and took a job with Georgia Tech.
Shortly thereafter, he was contacted by a man from Texas known as Tom Landry. The Legend wanted Franklin on his staff.
“I flew into Dallas for the interview and was nervous as a cat on a hot tin roof,” Franklin said. “We talked about my family and other personal stuff, then he made me draw up a play on the board for him.”
Landry liked what he heard and offered Franklin the assistant coaching job right there on the spot. Franklin, being the traditional Mississippian that he is, told Landry he had to go home and talk it over with his wife.
“A lot of my friends don’t believe me when I tell them I told Tom Landry I’d think about it,” he said.
Franklin won two Super Bowls with the Cowboys and bounced around the NFL before retiring back to North Mississippi where he bought an general store in Tunica county.
That venture lasted about four years before he was back in coaching again.
Franklin and his wife, Jo An, kept the store, but he would take over the head coaching spot at Northwest Mississippi Junior College after a two year stint as offensive coordinator there.
Twenty-six years later in 2004, Franklin stepped down after compiling a record of one of 201-56-6 and winning two National Championships. He is an inductee of the Ole Miss
Athletic Hall of Fame, the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame, and National Junior College Hall of Fame.
This article was originally printed in The Local Voice #92 (published October 29, 2009).