By Becky Killian / Editor
James Calvin Bird was a “Redhound to the end.”
More than 200 people gathered at Central Baptist Church in downtown Corbin Saturday to celebrate the life of beloved sports legend Calvin Bird, who died June 19 at the age of 75.
A portion of the service included a slideshow, with photos beginning with Bird’s time at Corbin High School where he received 10 letters in various sports. It went on to his time at the University of Kentucky, where his distinguished sports career continued, before transitioning to a series of family photos, marking the time from his marriage to Okeh Jean to their growing family. A more recent photo, titled “Redhound to the end,” showed Bird’s retired Corbin basketball jersey number, No. 66, painted on the back of his wheelchair.
Don Mathis, a former Central Baptist pastor and longtime friend to Bird, talked about how he met Bird while in Tennessee one fall for a church revival. Mathis wanted to watch a football game that pitted Tennessee against UK. His only concern was he didn’t want to see the game with someone likely to start singing “Rocky Top” — so arrangements were made for him to watch the game with Bird.
After getting that news about his game viewing companion, Mathis said, “When I got off the phone, I said, ‘Yes!’”
When the two men met, Mathis said he fought the urge to ask for Bird’s autograph. Then the two men grew to know one another.
“I was impressed with his humility,” Mathis said. “Calvin was the real deal.”
After inviting anyone in the church to come forward to speak about Bird, Mathis stepped away from the mic. A series of Bird’s teammates, colleagues and friends stepped forward to share stories that elicited both tears and laughter from those gathered.
David Chandler recalled a game in Barbourville that came after a drenching rain. The field was wet, but Bird, he said, was like a race horse, and it didn’t matter if he was running on a dry field or in the mud. After the Redhounds soundly beat Barbourville 66 to 0 (with Bird scoring several touchdowns), the team returned to their chartered Greyhound bus only to find it stuck in the mud. Coach Tucker ordered his team, including Bird — who placed himself in the center of the back of the bus — to help push it out of the mire which was thrown at them until the bus finally was freed.
Buddy Martin talked about Bird’s focus when playing and how that complemented his speed, talent and size. “He wanted the ball,” Martin said. “In the big games, he was the man.”
Martin also said Bird boasted a dry humor and, despite the accolades he garnered, “he was always Calvin.”
“The thing about Calvin, he never changed,” Martin said.
Another former teammate, Bob Morris, commented about his love for the Bird family.
“That’s how close we are. We are all brothers.”
Morris said he and Bird used to hike to Cumberland Falls. It was during one of those trips that he introduced Bird to his future wife, Okeh Jean.
Morris also shared words of reassurance to those gathered — words often repeated by those who participated in the service.
“I know where my friend is today,” he said. “We will all see Calvin again.”
David Miller shared his “pea pickin’ story” with those gathered.
When jobs were short in Corbin, Bird was among a group of Corbin boys who decided to go to Wisconsin to pick peas. A short distance down the road, Miller noted all their after shave was gone and the boys had nice smelling breath. Once at the faraway pea fields, the boys soon realized their travel costs and upkeep would likely soon outpace their meager earnings. So, with about $20 among them, they hitchhiked back in a trip that spanned days.
While at the mic, Bob Terrell said Corbin’s accomplished athletic families, including the Selvys, Roy Kidd and the Birds, showed the young people in this community what could be accomplished through hard work, team work and faith.
Ed Selvy spoke about his lifelong friendship with Bird.
“Calvin and I were friends. It was built on mutual respect.”
He also talked about how he cried for two weeks when he learned his friend was ill. Then, the last time he saw Bird, the two embraced, sharing only tears — no words were spoken.
“Those were tears of love and there were tears of grief.”
Some people, he said, are chosen by God to do extraordinary things.
“I think Calvin was one of those chosen people,” he said. “And I think what Calvin did was just meant to be.”
After the service, Calvin Bird’s son, Jamie Bird, said, “It was great to have so many of the people dad loved at the service, to hear the stories of the impact he had on so many people meant so much to all of us. He was a special guy. He was proud to be from Corbin and thankful to the many townspeople that lifted him up.”
Bird’s life celebrated at service
By Becky Killian / Editor
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