What football player from Shreveport’s Byrd High School led LSU in passing three years in a row?
If your answer is “David Woodley,” you may not recall Charlie McClendon’s two-quarterback system. Woodley shared playing time with Steve Ensminger of Central (Baton Rouge) when the “Woodsminger” Years brought the 18-year McClendon era at LSU to an end, with Ensminger leading the Tigers in passing in two of those three years.
We’re talking about a player who never made it to the National Football League, but won the Distinguished Flying Cross for shooting down six Japanese airplanes and helping to sink a Japanese destroyer long before Woodley was born: Leo Arnold Bird.
Bird may not have been Shreveport’s first “Blond Bomber,” but he was one of the best. LSU coach Bernie Moore called Bird “the best passer and punter in the Southeastern Conference” when he set school records in both categories.
A triple threat tailback for both Byrd High and LSU, Bird launched his athletic career as a 98-pound boxer while he was still attending Creswell Elementary School.
He also won a city tennis championship before earning letters in four sports (football, basketball, track and tennis) at Byrd High.
Bird’s LSU career record of 1,178 yards passing was broken by Y.A. Tittle a few years later, but Bird set a record of three touchdown passes in one game that stood until Ensminger broke it in 1977. Bird’s LSU record punting average of 43.2 yards in 1939 was finally broken by Rene Bourgeoise in 1989, and a couple of one-game were still standing at the turn of the century.
In September of 1944, former LSU guard Bill Edwards was on the submarine Finback, which was involved in a desperate race with the Japanese to reach a downed American pilot near Chichi Jima, where no American prisoners survived the war. The Japanese on Chichi Jima not only murdered their prisoners, but cannibalized them. When the Finback won the race and the pilot was pulled aboard, Edwards asked him what carrier he came from.
“The San Jacinto,” he replied.
“Do you know Leo Bird?, Edwards asked. “I played football with him at LSU.”
The pilot pointed to one of the Hellcats circling above the sub.
“Yes, I know him, and he’s in that plane right there,” said George Bush, who survived that crash to become President of the United States, and the father of another president.
When Byrd High capped an unbeaten season with a 13-7 victory over Warren Easton in the 1938 state championship game, the Yellow Jackets’ only All-Staters were Leo Bird and Bickham Dickson.
In August of 1938, eight Byrd players were selected to play in the Louisiana High School Coaches’ Association’s first All-Star football game. Bird was the top offensive player for the North team.
In 1939, LSU made history as the first college football team in the South to travel to a game by airplane, flying to Boston for a game with Holy Cross. Ronnie Cahill of Holy Cross was considered the best passer in college football that year, but Bird threw three touchdown passes to Ken Kavanaugh in that game and Kavanaugh scored another touchdown on a pass interception return as the LSU Tigers rolled to a 28-7 victory.
Jerry Byrd is the former sports editor of the Bossier Press-Tribune and an award-winning columnist. You can contact him by E-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org