(1) He was my first high school hero. I'll say he was many people's first high school hero.
(2) I have known many, many great competitors in my years in athletics. No one ever was a greater competitor than Billy Laird.
In the first high school football game I saw, Billy threw the winning touchdown pass on the last play. Right there I was a fan for life.
That night -- late September 1961 -- I was 14 years old, a junior high kid in the stands. To think that the winning quarterback would be my friend for 50-plus years was beyond my dreams.
In the first college football game in which I was the statistician for my school (Louisiana Tech), Billy was the quarterback. We didn't win that night, we didn't even score, but I was so proud to be a very small part of the program -- and Mr. Laird was one reason why I was.
I write this, and it's agonizing. It has been an agonizing month.
Because today, we lost Billy Laird at age 71. We pretty much knew the inevitability. But still it hurts. And as agonizing as it's been for all of us, his friends, think what it was like for the family.
Excuse me, but ... damn.
He leaves behind so much -- most importantly, a beautiful family (in every way): His wife of 50 years, their two children, their four grandchildren (who so much loved him, as he did them).
A legendary football career -- as the first in the line of great quarterbacks at Woodlawn High in Shreveport (our first connection) and then at Louisiana Tech University, where he was a three-time, record-setting, all-conference star with more than 4,000 passing yards.
An equally legendary, and long, football coaching career -- a number of college stops and then terrific years as athletic director and coach at Nashville (Ark.) High School and Ruston (La.) High, where through the day he was stricken he remained as AD and where his son Brad -- also an outstanding QB, at Ruston High and in college -- succeeded him as head coach.
And thousands of friends and admirers -- teammates, fellow coaches and teachers and administrators -- from every stop.
Those of us who followed him at Woodlawn and Louisiana Tech revered him, believe me. I know that Trey Prather, the next great QB at Woodlawn in the early 1960s, idolized him. I can almost guarantee that Terry Bradshaw and Joe Ferguson and Johnny Booty -- the three QBs that followed, will tell you that Billy was their hero, too.
Here is what I believe, what I know: This was an extraordinary life. This guy just about had it all.
He was good-looking (although I wouldn't have told him that), he was smart, he was just a helluva athlete in football and baseball. He was a son, brother, husband, father, grandfather -- and just a plain, good person.
Heck, yeah, he could get upset ... the hard-driving, demanding, hat-throwing QB and coach, play-caller. He wasn't as calm as, say, the head football coaches he played for and/or worked with -- Lee Hedges, Joe Aillet, A.L. Williams.
But he was such a natural athlete, and like his coaches, a natural leader. Billy wasn't pretentious; he didn't yell to show how big he was. He was point-blank honest, but diplomatic, too. For me, he was always fun to talk to, and to be around.
If I had a football question or needed to check on a fact from the distant (or recent) past, I knew Billy would know. He didn't forget plays, or games, or people. A couple of times he admonished for one of my rare outlandish observations.
Those us from Woodlawn, and Louisiana Tech, know how good he was at quarterback.
He had a rifle arm -- maybe not like Bradshaw, but few had that -- but he threw a catchable pass. He wasn't quite as accurate as Ferguson -- few were -- and maybe more prone to throw interceptions (I used to kid him about setting INT records at Tech, in addition to a whole bunch of positive passing records). He was more like Prather in fiery leadership, but Billy wasn't going to fight anyone.
(He would really show off that arm in baseball, as a catcher, or -- when his football coaches didn't want him catching -- at third base. He would field a grounder, take his time, inspect the ball, then fire it to a first baseman ... who was at risk.)
Mainly, Billy had great vision of the football field -- as a player and a coach. He knew how offenses could exploit defenses -- and he was as masterful running the two-minute drill as anyone I've seen.
Back to extraordinary ...
|Brenda and Billy Laird|
He had a shot at pro football, and it didn't take, only because the team that drafted him (Boston Patriots) and kept him on the taxi squad for a year also acquired a Heisman Trophy winner (John Huarte, Notre Dame) and the owner insisted the team keep Huarte, although Billy cleared outplayed him in training camp and preseason games.
Teams were limited, and rosters were limited; this was before expansion of the NFL. A few years later, he might've stayed in the pros for years.
So Billy turned to coaching. He eventually would coach with some great names -- Frank Broyles, Raymond Berry, Joe Gibbs, Don Breaux -- and on the Tulane staff which beat LSU for the first time in 25 years. Later, it was on to Northwestern State and back to Louisiana Tech -- and some very successful years.
He took time out from coaching, went into sales, and watched his son quarterback Ruston High to two state championships and a 31-1 record -- and one of those teams (1990) is considered one of Louisiana's best ever.
Then Billy went to Nashville, Ark. -- of all places -- and built a state championship program there (five trips to the state-title game). In 1999, an Arkansas Democrat-Gazette story referred to him as "Dr. Offense."
Then it was back to Ruston, back to near the grandkids, and while his teams didn't win as much there as Billy would've liked (Neville and West Monroe were tough district rivals always, and Ruston was on the low end of enrollment in its classification), his teams were competitive and fun to watch.
Billy and I laughed often at how much we each loved the passing game. Billy learned it from his coaches; Lee Hedges opened it up in 1961 at Woodlawn, at a time when few coaches did; and Joe Aillet was among the first in the Deep South to install the pro-style, spread-the-field offense. It was perfect for Billy.
About 10 years ago, one day Billy told me his dream game would be to have his team throw a pass on every play. I don't think he was kidding.
(So there you go, Brad ... make Dad's dream come true.)
Billy's dreams did come true, though, in many ways. He was about four F's -- football, fishing, friends ... and family.
For us at Woodlawn, it began with the crew-cut, determined kid wearing the all-royal blue uniform with jersey No. 10. I wrote about him and that team (winless in 1960, district champions in 1961) three years ago: http://nvanthyn.blogspot.com/2012/08/the-team-named-desire.html.
It was a great bunch of kids -- undersized, overachievers -- and they were extremely well-coached. There was some terrific talent there, but no way it would have happened without the passing ability, the cool and the leadership of Billy Laird.
He was the best competitor. He was great people. First heroes are irreplaceable.