Henry Martin consoles Calvin Bird’s widow, Okeh Bird, during a special ceremony to honor the Corbin and UK sports legend at Central Baptist Church Saturday. Calvin Bird died June 19.
Over 250 friends, family, former teammates and admirers paid tribute Saturday to the extraordinary life of the man many consider to be the best football player ever to graduate from Corbin High School.
Calvin Bird died June 19 at the age of 75 after a battle with cancer, but his legacy lived on at Central Baptist Church in Corbin during a special memorial service.
Bird was the lynchpin in the 1955 state Champion Corbin Redhound football team, and went on to be a starting running back at the University of Kentucky, and later, a brief stint in the NFL.
Rev. Don Mathis, a former pastor at Central Baptist Church, led the service by pointing out one of the most memorable parts of Bird’s athletic achievements — all four years he played for the UK football team the Wildcats defeated the University of Tennessee.
“That was as it should be,” Mathis joked.
“I was impressed with his humility. As his pastor told me, Calvin was the real deal.”
Henry Martin, a graduate of CHS and a former member of the school system’s Board of Education from 1972 through 1980, echoed the sentiment that Bird was a very genuine person.
“I can’t remember a time I didn’t admire him,” Martin said. “I’ve never known an athlete that spread statewide like Calvin did … He’s been a tradition in Corbin for a long time and he’s still a tradition in a lot of other places.”
Martin said Bird was such a successful athlete not only because of his natural gifts of speed, size and agility, but also because he had a desire to win when the chips were down and the game was on the line.
“He wanted the ball,” Martin said. “He would carry it every time.”
Bird graduated from CHS in 1957 and was the star player on the Redhounds’ 1955 state champion football team as a junior. He was selected as an All State player his junior and senior years.
Bird was also a talented basketball player as well. He averaged 32 points per game as a high school senior.
At the University of Kentucky, he excelled at five different positions on the football field, but was most used as a halfback. He still holds five school records in football and his jersey hangs above Commonwealth Stadium in recognition of his status as one of the school’s greatest players ever.
Gary West, author of The Boys From Corbin: America’s Greatest Little Sports Town, a book that details the town’s sports tradition, told a humorous tale about how he once used Bird’s name to run up charges on a collect call to Bill “Yogi” Meadors.
“One thing that I found out from doing the recent book is that Calvin does not just belong to Corbin … He belongs to the entire state of Kentucky,” West said, to hearty applause from the crowd.
Bob Terrell, a CHS grad who played on four region champion Redhound varsity basketball teams under coach Harry Taylor, said the ceremony should serve as a reminder to young people today “to look and see what can be done.”
“History is often forgotten by many people, but character is built on respecting history and respecting those who gave so much of themselves,” Terrell said. “I hope our city will carry that on and remember what can be done through hard work, teamwork, faith and an unwillingness to give up.”
Perhaps the most dramatic and somber moments of the service came when Ed Selvy, a teammate of Bird on the 1955 championship team, and brother to Corbin basketball great Frank Selvy, talked about the impact of the death of his friend.
“I cried for about two weeks,” Selvy said, after finding out Bird was gravely ill. “People would call me and I couldn’t talk to them.”
Selvy said Bird was among a group of people he believes was preordained by God to be exceptional.
“We both believed God chose certain people even before they were born to do extraordinary things,” Selvy said. “I had a brother that I think fit in that category … Calvin was one of those chosen people. You ask Calvin or my brother how did they do what they did, and they can only simply answer, ‘we just did it. We don’t know how we did it.’”
“I think what Calvin did was just meant to be.”
The service ended in prayer and a reception was held afterward.
Funeral services were held for Bird in Kingsport, Tenn. where he resided. Per his wishes, Bird’s body was donated for medical research to help find cures for cancer and other diseases.