Thursday, August 30, 2012

The Team Named Desire

       The first high school football game I saw, 51 years ago, began with a 90-minute delay because the lights wouldn't come on at Shreveport's State Fair Stadium.
       It ended with a touchdown pass on the game's final play. Not only a touchdown, but a spectacular one, and with our team -- the Woodlawn Knights -- winning the first district game they ever played.
Brenda, Brad and Billy Laird
       Wayne Davis was falling and then juggled Billy Laird's pass, finally grabbing the ball -- after a defensive player batted it -- while he was flat on his back in the southwest corner of the end zone, on our side of the stadium.
       The scoreboard clocks read: 0:00. The score read: Woodlawn 12, Fair Park 6.
       For those of us who remember, it was magic. It was a magical season. It was Woodlawn's "Team Named Desire," as it would soon be called by Shreveport sportswriting legend Jerry Byrd and others.
        No question, the 1961 Woodlawn Knights are among my favorite teams. They are why I fell in love with high school football. I'm sure many of the people in my age range from the Woodlawn area (and era) feel the same way.
         I wasn't even in high school yet; I was a ninth-grader at Oak Terrace. But that night, that year, I knew I was going to love being a Woodlawn Knight.
        Woodlawn opened in the fall of 1960, the third all-white public high school in Shreveport, and the first to open since Fair Park (1932). Byrd (1926, the successor to Shreveport High) and Fair Park ha,d been the all-consuming rivalry in town.
       Bossier High, across the Red River, had been the third party in the mix. St. John's, which by 1960 became Jesuit, was the private school in Shreveport but never much of a factor in athletics other than baseball.    
         In 1960, Woodlawn had mostly sophomores and juniors. Seniors could choose to stay at the schools they had been (mostly Byrd and Fair Park), except for those from Greenwood High, which closed as Woodlawn opened.
           So the 1960 Woodlawn football team -- with a new coaching staff headed by Lee Hedges and without practice fields at the school the first few weeks -- was young and green (many kids had never played before) ... and terrible. It wasn't eligible to play in District 1-AAA, but it had to play a varsity schedule. The 0-9 record, with no points the first five weeks, included only one close game.
           But almost all the players -- including a few promising prospects -- were back for '61, including the senior quarterback, Billy Laird, who missed the '60 season with a broken ankle. And Wayne Davis, for some reason, hadn't come out for the team in '60.
             This would be a very small team, physically, by high school standards, even then. Now, it would be laughable. One regular player, tackle Claude Carrigan, weighed more than 180 pounds. Most of the linemen were between 170 and 145. Most weeks they were outweighed 15-20 pounds up front.
              The best running back, Tommy Linder, was about 5-foot-8, 170, but as tough as any player Woodlawn ever had. He teamed at linebacker (and running back) with Paul Clark, bigger and solidly built, a terrific athlete.
              (Getting ahead of the story here, all five of the guys named above would play college ball at Louisiana Tech, all of them regulars, some of them stars.)
             This small Woodlawn team -- seemingly dressed each week in blue jerseys, blue pants and blue helmets -- didn't have much depth, so many players played offense and defense. But this team was so well-disciplined, so well-conditioned, so quick, so determined, so well-coached ... such winners.
              The Team Named Desire just kept winning games, almost every time pulling heroics in the last quarter.
             It set the tone for everything that would happen at Woodlawn the rest of the decade, a decade in which Woodlawn was the winningest big-class school in Louisiana.
            Victory No. 1 in school history came in the season opener at North Caddo, 13-6, on a final drive and a last-minute touchdown. That game ball went in the trophy case.
             Week two was the District 1-AAA opener with Fair Park, where three of the coaching staff (Hedges, A.L. Williams, W.B. Calvert) had been star players a decade or so earlier. And again, a final drive (75 yards, seven Laird completions in a row, including the last-play touchdown pass described above).
              The next three weeks -- Bastrop, Ouachita and Springhill -- were victories, the first two district games in which Woodlawn again made the big plays in the final 12 minutes. Springhill, a tough opponent always, was a 20-0 rout.
             Then came a game at West Monroe, the same place where the first Woodlawn game a year earlier had been a 44-0 loss. This was a 7-0 victory -- preserved by four separate goal-line stands (yes, four). The Knights were 6-0, and 4-0 in the district.
            Byrd, which would become the arch-rival, broke the magic spell the next week with a 26-0 whipping before the first of what would be crowds of 20,000-plus for this rivalry through the rest of the '60s. But Woodlawn bounced back for two more wins before another loss, 19-13 to the first of coach C.O. Brocato's great teams at Jesuit.
             The regular season came down to one final District 1-AAA game -- with the championship at stake -- against a very good Bossier team that had beaten Byrd 21-20 to open the door to the district title. Again, it was at State Fair Stadium; again, it was magic -- a 12-7 victory.           
              The rag-tag team of 1960 had become district champions of 1961. Cinderella story.
              The little Knights were no match for Sulphur in a playoff game, but the Woodlawn tradition had been established.
              Wayne Davis, already a man in '61 and an outstanding pass-catcher and blocker and strong defensive end, was Woodlawn's first All-State player. Billy Laird, mostly a rollout passer in the Wing-T offense but later an accurate, bullet pocket passer in coach Joe Aillet's pro-style offense at Tech, was second-team All-State.
              Both of them would be all-conference players at Tech and be drafted by pro teams.  
Coach Billy Laird
               Billy Laird is now the athletic director/head football coach at Ruston High School. On  Friday night, he begins his 37th year coaching football, his 21st year as a high school head coach. He had several college assistant coaching jobs -- coaching quarterbacks --  and success everywhere; he's also been on some staffs that were let go.
              He got out of coaching a couple of times -- once when his son Brad quarterbacked Ruston High to a couple of state championships (including the 1990 team many consider Louisiana's best ever). But Billy took another coaching opportunity in Nashville, Ark., and was there for 12 years, one team winning a state title and another finishing runner-up once.
               He's had one losing season, his first at Ruston, and while his Ruston teams haven't had the success of two of his predecessors there (L.J. "Hoss" Garrett and Jimmy "Chick" Childress, each with multiple state titles), no one plays Ruston without a battle.
             Coach Laird, as always, loves the passing game. He once told me, jokingly I think, that he dreamed of a game in which his team passed the ball on every play. Maybe that's why he's still coaching at age 68. Really, it's because he loves being around the kids, and loves the game, loves the competition.
          The Laird I know is one of the great competitors -- a fiery one at times, too. He was the hero, I guarantee you, to the great Woodlawn QBs that followed in the '60s -- Trey Prather, Terry Bradshaw, Joe Ferguson, Johnny Booty. He was a hero to everyone who was a Woodlawn fan.
           And, of course, he got the girl -- the beautiful blonde cheerleader/homecoming queen, Brenda Boyette, the Sunset Acres girl from our Woodlawn Class of '65. Although Billy graduated before we got to Woodlawn, he would often show up at the school the next three years, purportedly to see the coaching staff and help counsel quarterbacks. I think he just might've been there to see Brenda, too.
           They married soon after she graduated from WHS. They have this beautiful family.
           Football is still a big part of the Lairds' life. Brad also became a college coach and just left coaching for an administrative job at Northwestern State. Billy intends to coach a couple more seasons.
            I suspect through all that's happened in his football life, though, that Woodlawn's Team Named Desire has a special place in Billy Laird's heart. He would not be alone feeling that way.

1 comment:

  1. From Doug Bland (Woodlawn football RB-Safety, 1964-66, LSU football, 1967-70): "I've probably told you this, but I can remember, as if it was yesterday, looking into the coaches' office my first day of sophomore practice and seeing a helmet on a shelf with the top completely caved in. I asked Coach Williams what happened and he told me it was Paul Clark's helmet that he caved in running into a Byrd player. That’s the same day he told me I was going to wear his number (44) if I made the varsity. You are absolutely right; they set the standard for the rest of us."