Burlington High School

Birdman Forever

Kevin (from left), Caryn and Jaden Bird stand in front of the plaque honoring the athletic achievements of their late son and brother Josh Bird. Josh, a two-time state champion wrestler, died in a motorcycle crash last spring and was honored at Saturday’s wrestling match between Burlington and Union Grove. (Photo by Mike Ramczyk)

Wrestling squads honor late state champion Josh Bird

By Mike Ramczyk


Birdman forever.

What does that mean?

Well, it’s a motto to live by to honor the late wrestler Josh Bird, a former Burlington High School two-time state wrestling champion who lost his life in a motorcycle accident back May 22.

It’s about an unwavering belief in yourself, something that Bird epitomized in his two state championship matches, both of which he had to forge a furious comeback to win.

Burlington wrestling coach Jade Gribble spoke about “Birdman” on a Saturday in late December at BHS as the Demons and Union Grove formally honored Bird before their Southern Lakes Conference dual meet.

Athletes and coaches from each team wore T-shirts that read “Birdman Forever” on the chest, and Bird’s first of many tattoos was embroidered on the side.

The tattoo is a cross with the Bible verse Philippians 4:13, which reads “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”

Gribble fought back tears as he described a young man who touched many lives and always lived life to the fullest.

Gribble and Union Grove assistant coach Jesse Willis put the event together, as Union Grove wrestlers Cooper and Cade Willis have worked with Bird over the years at Higher Level and Ringers club wrestling. Josh’s brother Jaden, who wrestles for the Demons, is a close friend of the Willis brothers.

“Extremely excessive stubbornness with unwavering belief in himself,” Gribble said of Josh Bird. “He was down 8-0 in the state finals. That doesn’t happen. People don’t choose down in the state finals. In both state championship matches, he was down huge.

“His freshman year he was down 5-1 to a returning state champion that would go on to win two more state titles. Being down 5-1 forces your position. I looked at Josh, and I asked ‘Can you get away?’ He had this look in his eyes that he could, and he won in overtime.”

Then, his junior year, Bird was down 8-0 in the state title match.

“I hope these shirts serve as a reminder that even though we’re rivals, and we’re about to compete like I know Josh would want us to, we’re all part of something bigger,” Gribble said. “We’re all part of a wrestling community. That’s special. Be proud of that, remember that and relish it.”

The crowd roared after the heartwarming speech, and then the Demons proceeded to crush the Broncos, 54-24.


Wrestling for Josh

Jaden Bird has his arm raised victory following his match against a Union Grove opponent during a dual meet in December. (Photo by Mike Ramczyk)

Jaden Bird was one of several Demons to get a pin, and he admitted after the match it wasn’t easy to wrestle with Josh on his mind.

“It’s just another match – just keep looking forward and keep wrestling no matter what,” Jaden Bird said after the match. “I knew Josh was looking down on us and wishing he could’ve been there. Before I wrestle, Josh would always say, ‘Go kick ass.’ Everything takes time, but it’s cool how he inspired a lot of kids on both teams and we could do this with COVID and everything and still be here and compete.”

Lisa Willis said her boys Cooper and Cade have gone on wrestling tournament trips with Josh Bird and learned a lot from his coaching. The Willis family lives in Kansasville, and the boys still drive to Burlington to train at Higher Level.

The relationship began at the middle-school level, and now both boys have state tournament aspirations.

“The boys have wrestled with the Birds at Higher Level since they were 6 or 7,” Lisa said. “Josh took them to a tournament in Michigan two years ago. Josh was a great kid. They like his intensity, his love of the sport and his zest for life. You can never count Josh out. The Birds are a great family. It was very cool to have this today. It was well-deserved. Quite a few kids on our team have had a lot of contact with Josh. Listening to Jade get choked up was kind of hard.”


Father learning to not sweat the small stuff

Kevin Bird, Josh’s dad, said when Josh was young he would get removable tattoos, and the one on the shirt was one he drew when he was young.

“When he turned 18, he was determined to get the tattoo he wanted to bring honor to God and yet demonstrate his passion for wrestling,” Kevin said. “The verse, Philippians 4:13, is a verse I had painted in our home wrestling gym. It was just his way to display his character.

“Jade’s speech was right on the mark – we loved it as a family. All of the boys are a little different on the mat. I was interested to watch how he handled the emotion of the event and I was impressed.”

Josh’s death has put things into perspective for Kevin, who still enjoys watching his son Jaden wrestle.

Kevin is on the Burlington Area School District School Board, and he’s learned not to sweat the small stuff.

“My perspective on life has more meaning, and I try and appreciate friends and family deeper,” Kevin said. “One big takeaway is it seems everyone has experiences of pain and sorrow and grieving all at different levels and if we listen without heart, we may not understand but we can be empathetic with where we are in life.

“The family is all grieving differently and when one is weak another is strong. It has certainly made our conversations more meaningful and boys’ relationships deeper.”

Comments are closed.