Trojan Origins


So I’m all marked out for the day and decide to catch up (again) on some email … immediately I’m met by the incipit to this thing in the Huffington Post:

Everyone remembers Homer’s Troy as the society the Greeks fooled into accepting the Trojan Horse — the gift that ultimately led to their demise. Yet, many fail to remember these same Trojans, led by Aeneus, went on to found the great city of Rome, perhaps the most influential empire in the history of civilizations. The ancient Trojans of Homer’s Iliad remind me of the accomplished Trojans seated here this evening. Each one of us has experienced failure just like the Trojans, yet each of us has marched on to found our own Rome. […]

via: Graduates, Put Your Beliefs Into Action (Huffington Post)

… sadly, I can’t be bothered to locate my Chapeau Pedantique, but I did suddenly remember that Don Buck — who earns a tip o’ the pileus, natch — had sent in something ages ago on why all those USC teams are called the Trojans; from the LA Times:

It was just one word, one brief thought from a dreamy kid about an upstart university, seven taps on a rattling typewriter, one word stuck deep in the first sentence of a thick first paragraph.

But for both the school and the sports columnist, it was one word that changed their worlds.

His name was Owen R. Bird, he was 25, and he had been with the Los Angeles Times barely five months when one of his influential readers made an unusual request. He was asked by Warren Bovard, USC’s athletic director, to end the circus of monikers given the school’s athletic teams — Methodists, Wesleyans and Cards — and find one powerful nickname that would stick.

One hundred years ago, Feb. 24, 1912, in a track preview in this newspaper, Bird began referring to USC as the “Trojans.”

It was one word that eventually defined an institution, created a culture and fostered an attitude that has endured for a century.

It was also one word that cursed the man who concocted it.


After naming the Trojans, Bird spent the rest of his life wildly and vainly trying to replicate the stature of that achievement while barely being remembered for it.

He fought in one skirmish and one war, married three women, worked at least a dozen jobs, lived in at least a dozen homes and continually sought greater thrills, until one day making the only memory more compelling than his Trojans creation.

On a winter evening in 1929, Bird returned to his Silver Lake home to find his wife, Laura, conversing with his best friend, Percival Watson. Bird pulled out a revolver and killed Watson with shots through his face, arm and abdomen.

Bird was convicted of manslaughter and sent to prison with a farewell that would serve as a template for the rest of his life. In its stories on the incident, the same Los Angeles Times that decorated its pages with nearly 800 of his bylined pieces during Bird’s three years as sports editor and columnist never once mentioned that he had worked there.

Upon returning to society after serving two years in prison, it was as if his previous life never existed. Bird finished out his life drifting through various jobs and homes, estranged from his children, ending his career as a security guard, dying at age 78 after a long battle with pulmonary emphysema.

One hundred years later, “Trojans” is one of the sports world’s most celebrated nicknames, associated instantly with USC, a name steeped with tradition and meaning and millions of dollars in merchandise sales.

The local keeper of the Owen Bird flame lives in appropriate obscurity, spending his last 34 years in a 240-square-foot apartment one block from Santa Monica beach.

Laury Bird is a retired cab driver who, like the other five Bird grandchildren, never knew the famous man. He has studied his grandfather’s records, collected some of his papers, and attempted to spread his legacy.

“Even when I had USC kids in my cab and I would try to tell them my grandfather’s story, they really didn’t listen or believe,” Bird said. “I’m not sure anybody did.”

Who would? It’s the story of a star Occidental athlete who hooked up with The Times even though he never officially graduated, and then celebrated his good fortune with daily sports accounts that read like action movies. Check out his 1911 story about the 16th and final round of a local boxing match in which Johnny Kilbane knocked out Joe Rivers.

“Joe staggered to the ropes a pitiful contrast to the strong young boy who just one minute before was itching for a fight…His knees were bending and his flashing brown eyes had lost their luster.”

Bird loved the underdog, and so, in covering the Southland sports scene, he came to love USC and its attempts to move into major-college athletics. In a rare interview decades later, he explained how he came up with “Trojans.”

“Owing to the terrific handicaps, under which the athletes, coaches and managers of the university were laboring at this time … appreciating their splendid fighting spirit and ability of the teams to go down under overwhelming odds of bigger and better equipped teams … it seemed to me that the name ‘Trojan’ fitted their case,” he said.

The name stuck so well and fit so perfectly that 100 years later it is arguably bigger than the university name itself. You are not simply a USC fan. You are a Trojan.

FWIW, my own high school team (William Aberhart High!) was also named the Trojans, along with myriad other schools, I suspect …

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