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.
Since being named the Trojans, USC has won 116 national titles and 363 individual NCAA titles while using athletics to help build the school into a institution of worldwide influence with endowments in the billions.
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.
One hundred years later, Owen R. Bird’s last living relatives just wish they knew where they could find his ashes.
“We feel very proud of my grandfather for everything he brought to Los Angeles,” said Doris Kupfer, one of his six known grandchildren. “We also feel very sorry for everything he lost.”
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.
“The nickname spreads far wider than just athletes and ex-athletes,” said Pat Haden, USC’s athletic director. “It’s doctors and lawyers and grandparents and grandchildren, all walks of life, multigenerational, if you feel an attachment to USC, you call yourself a Trojan.”
Bird was never offered any money for choosing the name, nor apparently did he ever ask for a trademark or percentage. For the kid writer, it seemed the instant notoriety of the nickname was enough.
“It was his golden moment,” Kupfer said.
Barely two years after coming up with the nickname, he left The Times in search of a greater shine. He joined Gen. John J. Pershing in pursuit of Pancho Villa through northern Mexico. And when that effort failed, he joined the American Expeditionary Forces in World War I, where he reached the rank of major.
Bird returned stateside in the 1920s to work in numerous jobs that included ad salesman, car dealer, stockbroker and gold miner.
“He was always on to the next thing, always chasing the next challenge,” Laury Bird said. “He was a flawed man, but a fascinating man.”
His reckless life finally slipped off the rails on the night he shot his best friend, a night when he was apparently drinking heavily and could offer only the incredible defense that he thought his gun was shooting blanks. His conviction and sentence were the last straw for his children and grandchildren.
“The shooting destroyed the kind of life he was happy with,” Kupfer said. “Suddenly, he couldn’t be in society anymore, really. Those doors were closed to him. We lost track of him.”
The Trojans continually honor the man who named them in media guides and school brochures, and issued a news release this week to mark the 100th anniversary. But in many other ways, he has become little more than a historical footnote.
His death in 1964 was marked in The Times Sports section by a six-sentence obituary at the bottom of Page 2. His grandchildren have no connection to the university, and most have never been to a USC sporting event.
In the early 1970s, while taking a campus tour, Kupfer came upon a bust of Bird in Heritage Hall. She shouted to everyone that this was her grandfather.
“But nobody believed me, and we all just walked on,” she said.
A few years ago, she returned in search of the bust, but it was missing. USC officials say they don’t know if it ever existed.
She has since stopped looking, because it’s all sort of fitting.
“The bust was there, I know it,” Kupfer said. “But like my grandfather, I suppose it will have to forever remain a mystery.”