Before Darrelle Revis, Aaron Glenn and Antonio Cromartie, there was a Jets player who played both cornerback and safety, who had a nose for the interception. Bill Baird only started 80 games in his Jets career (playing 98 total games) but had 34 interceptions, two of which were returned for touchdowns. His 34 is still the New York Jets record! To put this into perspective, two other notable Jet cornerbacks were mentioned above: Revis had 25 interceptions in 108 games and Glenn had 24 interceptions in 121 games.
Bill Baird was born in Lindsay California on March 1, 1939. He played quarterback and defensive back at Lindsay High School. He then went to San Francisco State College, and in 1959 helped lead the team to their only undefeated season. Without any inquiries from the pros, after college he ended up at Lincoln High School as a student/teacher. We all know how fate works in a positive or negative way. This time it ended up to be in Bill Baird’s favor when the Baltimore Colts, on the west coast for a game, needed a place to practice. They ended up at Lincoln High which Baird even describes today as something of a miracle. The school coach convinced then Colts head coach Weeb Ewbank to give Baird a special tryout. Weeb ended up signing Baird and he was at the Baltimore Colts training camp in 1963. Fate again cast it magic wand. Ewbank left the Colts, and a young Don Shula took over as head coach. Baird made it to the final cut and probably something Shula later regretted, he cut Baird. When he got cut, the defensive coordinator of the Colts, Charley Winner called Weeb and Ewbank quickly signed Baird to the AFL New York Franchise which became the newly re-named New York Jets.
For the next three seasons, the Jets had losing records. Baird started 22 games in those three years and had 17 interceptions, returning one 54-yards for a touchdown. These numbers are quite stunning showing that Baird had a knack for the interception with a great nose for the football. Things you just can’t coach!
The Jets began getting talented players led by Joe Namath. The defense played a huge role helping to change the once laughable New York Titans into a formidable franchise. In the AFL, these Jets had some classic games especially against the Oakland Raiders, Kansas City Chiefs and San Diego Chargers. The games were wide open with a lot of offense and scoring. Baird and the Jets had to contend with receivers like Fred Biletnikoff, Otis Taylor and Lance Alworth, just to name a few.
In 1967, the Jets went 8-5-1. If you followed the team, you could just see the accumulation of talent on both offense and defense taking hold. While the offense got most of the publicity, led by Joe Namath and Don Maynard, it was the defense that I was impressed with. With players like Gerry Philbin, Al Atkinson, Verlon Biggs and Bill Baird playing mostly safety at the time, things were coming together molding the Jets into a balanced team. That year, Baird started all 14 games and besides his 3 interceptions, he returned 25 punts and was known for his sure hands.
In 1968, the season started off slowly with Namath struggling and was almost benched. The defense added another weapon at defensive tackle, one John Elliot who was one of my all time personal favorites. A combination of speed and youth (only one defensive starter over 30-Johnny Sample at 32), helped make the Jets defense one of the best in the league. Baird continued his consistent stellar play intercepting 4 passes and returning 18 punts. At safety, he always seemed to be in the right place at the right time. Opponents might have wondered if Baird had their playbook and signals.
The Jets-Raiders Championship game was just classic AFL football. The game was a wide open affair with the Jets winning 27-23. Baird and the Jets defense helped contain Daryle Lamonica the best they could. Even though Hall of Fame receiver Fred Blientnikoff had 7 receptions for 190 yards, the defense frustrated Lamonica and he was 20 for 47 that day.
In the Super Bowl, everyone knows how much of an underdog the Jets were. The Baltimore Colts were considered something of an offensive juggernaut that year. They finished 13-1 and their only loss was to the Cleveland Browns. The Colts later avenged that loss in the NFL Championship game beating the Browns 34-0.
The Super Bowl game itself helped change the world of not only professional football but all professional sports. The Jets beat the Colts 16-7. On that historical day, Bill Baird combined with Jim Hudson, Randy Beverly and Johnny Sample to shut down the famed Colts offense and their wide receivers. In fact the only score by the Colts came late in the fourth quarter.
After his career with the Jets that lasted seven years, Bill Baird coached others trying to share his techniques and instincts He coached at the high school, college and got back to the NFL where he coached the Jets defensive backs from 1981-84. He then went back to teaching school at Reedley (CA) High School and he retired in 2005.
When the reputable online football site “Bleacher Report” named their top 50 New York Jets, Bill Baird was number 36. This is part of their summary of him:
“ While this name is a throwback, Bill Baird was the Jets greatest safety. Further proving the point that Baird is an unsung hero in New York, Baird was never in the pro bowl, but he currently holds the record for most interceptions by a member of the Jets with 34.”
Some of Bill Bairds feats:
* Rookie season 4 punt returns, 143 yards, 1 TD, 35.1 ave.
* 34 Career Interceptions for 357 yards
* Two interceptions returned for touchdowns
* 54 pass defenses
* In 1966-Eleven kickoffs for 240 yards
* 88 Career punt returns for 787 yards.
* 13 Career kick off returns for 290 yards
* 93-yard kick off return for a TD
My best memory of Bill Baird was when I attended a Jets game during their Super Bowl run in 1968. They were hosting the Houston Oilers. I remember Pete Beathard was Houston’s quarterback and the Jets secondary, led by Baird made him look silly. As a youngster, sitting in the upper deck at Shea Stadium, I saw Baird running around like the comic book character “Flash.” You could see even then, how Baird was baiting the quarterback throughout the game. He did get one interception and his overall play that day was textbook great safety play.
Hit like every at bat counts!
Bill Baird measured 5’10” and weighed in at 180 pounds but played much bigger than that. He gave everything he had as a player at a position where if your name isn’t called (except for an interception) it’s a good thing. He was underrated and gave Jets fans something that has become something of a Jets rarity, the interception!
Marty Schupak has been a New York Jets football fan since 1964. Ray Clifford another lifelong fan contributed to this article. Their blog and Podcast are both at: www.JetsRewind.com
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