Once upon a time, many years ago, there was a small railroad town hidden in the hills of Kentucky. In this town were ordinary working people who went about their days working at the railroad, keeping house, going to church on Sundays, going to school during the week and hanging out at the YMCA after school and on weekends. It was a community where there was no money for luxuries, but neighbors looked out for one another and helped when and how they could.
In the midst of this small-town life, something extraordinary was happening: Two young couples — the Selvys and the Birds — began their families. And Corbin would never be the same.
In his book, "The Boys of Corbin: America’s Greatest Little Sports Town," author Gary P. West follows the careers of many Corbin Redhounds of the 1930s through the 1960s. Various Sports Halls of Fame list 24 Corbin Redhound stars, including six Selvys and five Birds. These two families are featured prominently in the book, but it’s Calvin Bird, “the best there ever was,” that this story is mainly about.
Calvin was 6 feet, 2 inches tall, 185 pounds, “could run like the wind, throw the ball 50 yards in the air, and catch a football as if that’s what he was born to do. When Corbin sports historian Bill Crook says Calvin was "the best there ever was," you tend to believe him. Those who saw Bird play for the Corbin Redhounds in the mid-50s say there has never been anything like him, before or since. Calvin Bird and the 1955 team once and for all put the Redhounds on the football map, not only in Kentucky, but throughout the southeast” (p.85).
Today, he calls Kingsport home.
“In our early days, most of us had never seen a football game,” says Bird. “Some adults from town got the head of the YMCA (they figured he’d know something about coaching), and got some boys together and started teaching us football. After the first few wins, the townspeople really got behind us. We got ‘real’ uniforms, and if a player wanted to see a U.K. football game, the town would find a way to purchase a ticket, hire a car and driver, and provide money for a meal. Sometimes we had three or four carloads of boys going to a game.”
What was the secret behind Corbin’s large number of highly-successful athletes?
Calvin Bird offers these insights: “We were all pretty poor, so really no one started with much of an advantage. We were raised in a small town - everyone knew everyone, we had good coaches who got the whole town involved.”
Veteran sports broadcaster Don Estep found the names of 17 athletes in the 1957 Corbin yearbook who received scholarships to college. According to the book, “Eight went to U.K., two to Western Kentucky, and one each to Georgia Tech, Eastern Kentucky, U.T., Furman, Iowa Weslyan, Morehead and Georgia Southern. Especially impressive was that 43 athletes in the decade of the 1950s went to college on their football and basketball abilities.”
On Feb. 13, 1954, in Greenville, S.C., another Redhound, Frank Selvy, scored 100 points in a historic game between his Furman team and Newberry College. Even though Furman’s student enrollment was only 500 at the time, some 4,000 fans came to pay tribute to a living legend.
Calvin ran track and played both basketball and football as a Redhound. His 264 season points his senior year were believed to be a national record. He went on to play basketball at the University of Kentucky for a year under legendary Coach Adolph Rupp, played football at Kentucky, and played with the San Diego Chargers and the New York Jets. In August, 1997, Calvin’s No. 21 jersey was retired and, on Sept. 10, 2005, the boy from Corbin, along with 87 other Wildcat athletes, was inducted into the Charter Class of the University of Kentucky Hall of Fame.
To try and summarize such an amazing life is impossible. Calvin says he is grateful for everything in his life - professionally and personally. He and his wife, Okeh, live quietly in a beautiful, light-filled house in Colonial Heights that was her parents’ home. Fellow Redhounds are still close friends.
“We have a reunion about every year at a big cabin on the Cumberland River in Corbin. We get together and tell the biggest lies you ever heard! But if one of us is sick, or in financial difficulty, the others are there for him, no questions asked. We formed a strong bond years ago in Corbin and, throughout all our lives, we still come back home.”
The story is based on an interview with Mr. and Mrs. Calvin Bird, June 4, 2013, and the book, "The Boys of Corbin" by Gary P. West.