Rodger Bird stood in his own end zone waiting for the Virginia Tech kicker to get the 1963 University of Kentucky football season underway. He was a sophomore playing his first varsity game (freshman were ineligible back then) and a sold out Stoll Field in Lexington was waiting to see what was considered the greatest crop of home grown recruits in Wildcat football history.
Bird, from Corbin; Rick Norton, Louisville; Sam Ball, Henderson; Rick Kestner, Belfry; Talbot Todd, Richmond; Basil Mullins, Paintsville, and Mike McGraw, Ft. Thomas were the core of coach Charlie Bradshaw’s treasure find.
It didn’t take long for them to find out.
Boom, the game was underway. Bird gathered the ball in on the eight yard line, All- SEC tackle Herschel Turner threw a big block at the 30, as Rodger raced across to the right side of the field. Bobby Kosid landed another and Rodger was gone. The play took all of 14 seconds for the boy from Corbin to cover 92-yards for a touchdown. No one laid a hand on him.
It was the most sensational debut in Wildcat gridiron history, perhaps comparable to a baseball player hitting a grand slam in his first-at-bat in the big leagues.
When Rodger was finished, Kentucky had defeated Virginia Tech 33-14. He carried the ball 19 times for 157-yards and scored another TD.
Forgotten in it all was that Rick Norton, who went on to become an All-American and first round draft choice, failed to complete a single pass. In fact Talbot Todd came off the bench late in the game to connect on the Wildcats’ only pass.
Ironically, Kentucky’s last opening game win came in 1958 with a 51-0 rout of Hawaii, when Rodger’s older brother, Calvin Bird, scored a school record 25 points in his first varsity game at Kentucky. For the Birds, lightening had struck twice.
A sidebar to the story is that Virginia Tech was coached by Jerry Claiborne, who had played at Kentucky under Bear Bryant. Claiborne, a Hopkinsville native, later became the head coach at U.K. upon retirement in 1989, moved to Bowling Green where he died in 2000 at the age of 72.
When I met Rodger at U.K. he was on the verge of becoming an All-American and hoping someday of playing in the pros. If that didn’t work out he wanted to work for the Kentucky Fish and Wildlife. I was hoping someday to write for a newspaper, never dreaming about a book, much less someone paying me money to read it. What we had in common was football. He played it and I wrote about it.
Years later, after playing in Super Bowl II for the Oakland Raiders, he became a successful businessman in Henderson, KY where he, and his wife Sally and their family lived.
With this said, Rodger Bird died Saturday, May 14, at 4:30 a.m. in Henderson. I don’t know what the official cause of death was listed as, but I do know that throughout his career at Corbin High School, Kentucky and the NFL, he took over a thousand shots to the head, often with inferior equipment. It took its toll.
For someone meeting Rodger Bird for the first time, there was little evidence he had ever been one of the most acclaimed football players to come from this state. On occasion he would wear his Super Bowl ring, or maybe a cap with the Raiders logo. That was pretty much it.
In 2010, I was in Henderson speaking to a civic club, where Rodger was in attendance. We got reacquainted from our college days. It was there I told him I would like to write a book about him and his brothers. Jerry Bird had been an all all-SEC basketball player at U.K. and his jersey hangs in Rupp Arena. Calvin, Billy and Rodger came along and became record-setting football players, that all played at U.K. In my mind they were the most famous sports family in Kentucky history.
I already have the name of the book I told him. “The Fabulous Birds from Corbin,” I said. I’ll never forget the half-smile he gave me while saying, “Gary, that’s not something Jerry, Calvin and I would be interested in.” (Billy died several years earlier.)
A year later Rodger and I again crossed paths.
“Hey,” he said, “We’ve decided if you still want to do that book, we’ll do it. But there’s one thing. We’ll do it if you include the Selvy’s, (Frank, Edd, Marvin, Curly, Curt, David), Chandlers (Mel and David), Jesse Grant, Roy Kidd, Nick Denes and all of the others from Corbin.”
Of course I was all in.
A journey began that solidified my friendship with Rodger and the Bird family and culminated with a book, “The Boys From Corbin . . . America’s Greatest Little Sports Town.”
Rodger, his wife Sally, and my wife Deborah became close friends over the years, even taking several vacations together.
Getting Rodger to talk about himself was not easy. He talked about teammates freely. But like the proverbial first olive out of the jar, we became comfortable with each other and the stories poured out.
The first time I visited Rodger at his home in Henderson there was little if any evidence that he ever played football, much less in a Super Bowl. There were similarities between him and King Kelly Coleman, who I had written about a few years before. Their game and the level it reached, spoke for itself.
In fact, Sally Bird told a story about son Paul, years ago coming home from school and asking, “Did daddy ever play football?”
Paul might not have known about his dad’s football exploits, but you can bet he knew all about his love for the outdoors, especially hunting. I’m convinced Rodger Bird had rather hunt squirrels and rabbits then score a touchdown. He was once asked if he liked football better than hunting? “You don’t have to practice hunting, so which one do you think?”
Later in life Rodger cared less and less about following football, but in 2016 U.K. football coach Mark Stoops invited Rodger to visit the campus, tour the facilities and take in a practice. Rodger asked me to come along.
It was first class. Name tags, tour guide, and Coach Stoops taking time to meet with us, plus a special one-on-one with Rodger. I was standing close enough to hear the U.K. coach tell him, “Rodger you don’t have to have a name tag to come to anything we have here. You have an open invitation any time you want.”
Finally, not long ago two footballs appeared on a shelf in the den at the Bird’s house. One was recognizing him as an all-time SEC legend at a ceremony in Atlanta for the SEC championship game. The other was a gold football touting his playing in a Super Bowl. One was also dedicated to Corbin High School.
Rodger Bird was known far and wide, from one end of Kentucky to the other. It was mainly because of his athletic ability. But for those who got to know him, he was much more than that. His humbleness, love for his family and loyalty to his friends is what really moved the needle as a person. I was lucky to have known him.
There’s no excuse, get up, get out and get going! Gary P. West can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org