Thursday, June 11, 2015

A hero, a friend ... a great life

      Two thoughts right off about Billy Laird:
      (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.
      No one.
      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 led his high school team to a monumental district championship; he led his college team to a conference title and a nearly perfect season; he then married the high school "beauty," homecoming queen and cheerleader from our neighborhood (Brenda Boyette, from Sunset Acres) right after she graduated from Woodlawn. Like I said, smart. 
     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: 
       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.          


  1. From Jim Oakes: Awesome tribute to an outstanding man. What a great loss to the Tech and Ruston High family.

  2. From Sandi Atkinson: Brokenhearted for Brenda. I can't remember when they weren't together.
    We have lost a true gentleman and one hell of an athlete and coach, but most of all is the loss to his family and close friends.

  3. From Doug Bland: You are right in that he was the leader of the group that started the Woodlawn tradition. I was with Coach Williams last week and we talked about that group of players and what they meant to Woodlawn. The only reason Terry didn't wear 10 was that Trey already had it.
    I know I told you the story about being at the Bossier Strip and Billy telling me I was a Woodlawn Knight and didn't need to get into trouble there. I always used that from then on to help me remember if I should or shouldn't do something.

  4. From Kirby Ramsey: A poignant article about a good man and a true hero. I know Billy Laird would be pleased. He was my fourth grade summer baseball assistant coach. His Dad was our coach. Such good people.

  5. From Raleigh Whitehead: In 1954 I was 6 years old and was in the second half of my first-grade year at Summer Grove Elementary. The school was an old wooden building and I "caught" a school bus to go to school. One afternoon, I was late in getting to the school bus for the ride home. There were no more seats. The bus was full.
    Billy Laird was sitting in the first seat behind the school bus driver and offered to let me sit on his lap for the ride home. I think that he got off the bus before I did so I was able to sit in his empty place. You can't imagine how proud I was to have Billy give me a seat even though it was in his lap.
    Way back then, Billy was a recognized leader and all-around good guy. I never forgot that act of kindness on his part. Never.

  6. From Keith Annison: The Good Lord has a plan, and that must have included a QB and dear family friend in Billy Earl. I remember the days of Lairds Grocery, and family gatherings with the Lairds. Rest in peace, my friend, and watch over Brenda and family.

  7. From Judy Arnold McKenzie: Priceless! Billy Earl was a legend. Even as a kid he was so special and sweet. We have lost a true hero and a special friend to so many. God bless his precious family.

  8. From John English: Your statements in your article about being a kid of 14 in the stands watching him play really rang a bell. We were both there. I remember going to those games on Thursday and Friday nights by riding the Shreveport city buses and sometimes walking home after the games. I loved watching those games and the halftime band performances and just knowing that I was going to be a Knight, too. Fifty years later, we all are still Knights.

  9. From Jerry Humphries: May God bless Billy, Brenda and their family. My regards to all. Billy was a Rock Star when we showed up for tryouts at Woodlawn in the spring of '62 ( and thereafter). He was a kind soul, willing to share his knowledge. [He threw] the most beautiful spiral I ever saw. I plan to see it again.

  10. From David Worthington: I've been praying for the Woodlawn and Tech and Ruston friends of Billy Laird. He was fun to watch.
    I'm sorry that I didn't really get to know him, but I admired him.
    As you mentioned, we are all aging and experiencing more of our friends declining in health. We are mortal, yes, and life is fragile. We are put here for a reason and yes, I agree with you, that we are to try and make life better for others with whom we come in contact.

  11. From Kim Gaspard: Thank you so much for expressing your thoughts on Billy. I first met him as a senior in high school and he was on the Tulane staff. Then one day he came by my school at Princeton near Haughton to do a fundraising program. Our friendship certainly blossomed to the point that my son spent a week with Billy and his family in Nashville during the quarterback camp he put on each summer. The Laird Family was so generous. They are examples of what real family really is about. Thank you again for putting into words what many of us felt about Billy Laird.