'Bear Down Tradition'

The University of Arizona athletics department boasts one of the most memorable traditions and slogans in collegiate athletics. Taken from a quote by a fallen school hero, "Bear Down" has become part of Wildcat lore since 1926.

John 'Button' Salmon

John "Button" Salmon was one of the most popular and successful athletes at the UA in the 1920s, a letterwinner in both baseball and football. However, tragedy struck the Wildcats at the beginning of the 1926 season as Salmon was killed in an automobile accident. On October 3, 1926, less than one week before the football team began its intercollegiate schedule, Salmon lost control of the car he was driving between Tucson and Phoenix, was ejected and suffered a broken neck and paralysis.

Though many thought his condition was improving, Salmon, who was the team's quarterback and the school's student body president, passed away on October 18. He spoke to legendary UA football coach and athletics director J.F. "Pop" McKale on October 17, and McKale asked his quarterback if he had any words of encouragement for the team. Salmon said, "Tell them... Tell the team to bear down." Before the team's next game, October 22 at New Mexico A&M (now New Mexico State), McKale told his team Salmon's now famous quote. An inspired, yet shaken, Wildcat team went on to beat New Mexico A&M 7-0, en route to a 5-1-1 season.

The story regarding Salmon's "Bear Down" statement was known only to McKale and the team until the following year. At that time, a small group of players had the idea to paint "Bear Down" on the top of the brand new gym on campus.

In the summer of 1928, "Bear Down" was officially painted on the top of what is now known as Bear Down Gym.

In 1952, the legend of "Bear Down" became even stronger when Jack Lee, who had just applied and interviewed for the position of Director of Bands at UA, was flying over the campus on his return to Michigan when he saw the words on top of the gym. On the flight, Lee wrote nearly all the words and music to Bear Down, Arizona. A few weeks later, Lee accepted the job at UA, and Bear Down, Arizona became the official school song.

A bust of Salmon on a monument with his famous statement now stands outside the southwest corner of McKale Center. The monument was dedicated at "Button Salmon Day" on October 18, 1986.


  • John Byrd "Button" Salmon born October 22, 1903 in Cristoval, Texas
  • Lettered in 1924-26 as a catcher on the UA baseball team.
  • Lettered in 1924 and 1925 as a quarterback on the UA football team.
  • Member of the "A" club, Chain Gang (Junior Men's Honorary); Bobcats and Sigma Nu fraternity.
  • Student Body president, 1926-(1927).

Played in Intersquad game against the freshman team to open the season on October 2, 1926. Salmon threw touchdown pass to Ted Diebold and on last play of the game to John McArdle. Varsity won 20-0.

Salmon, Diebold and two local women drove to Phoenix to visit Diebold's family on Sunday, October 3.

Returning to Tucson late that night, Salmon failed to negotiate a curve about six miles north of Florence, Ariz. The car flipped and Salmon was thrown from the car, breaking his neck and severely damaging his spinal cord, paralyzing him. The other passengers in the car were not seriously injured.

Salmon remained hospitalized over the next two weeks. Legendary football coach and athletics director J.F. "Pop" McKale visited him daily. The varsity team beat Phoenix Junior College 54-0 on Oct. 9 and Tempe Normal School 35-0 on Oct. 16.

McKale last spoke to Salmon on Sunday, Oct. 17, at which time he asked Salmon if he had a message for the team. He told McKale, "Tell them.. Them to bear down."

Salmon suffered a "temporary paralysis of the circulatory system" and died on Monday, Oct. 18.

Salmon's death affected the entire campus, of which he was the student body president. Reports were that he was improving but might not walk again. However, no one was prepared for Salmon's death four days before his 23rd birthday.

A memorial service was held on Tuesday, Oct. 19, and afternoon classes were canceled on Wednesday, the day of the funeral, in memory of Salmon. UA President Dr. Cloyd H. Marvin eulogized him as a "Fine, clean, upstanding and fearless man. He represented that which marks Arizona men."

Salmon's body lay in state in the UA Auditorium from Tuesday's memorial service until the funeral at 3 p.m Wednesday. The procession to Evergreen Cemetery was said to be three miles long.

The football team left by train for its game that Friday against New Mexico A&M (now N.M. State) in Las Cruces. The Wildcats beat New Mexico State 7-0, en route to a 5-1-1 season.

Years later, McKale said that he did not plan it, but decided to relay Salmon's dying words to the team immediately before the game in Las Cruces. The favored, and shaken, Wildcats scored in the fourth quarter for the 7-0 win.

The story regarding Salmon's "Bear Down" statement was known only to McKale and Salmon's teammates until the following year. A small group of football players had the idea to paint "Bear Down" on top of the brand new gym.

In the summer of 1928, "Bear Down" was painted officially in red block letters on the roof of the gym. The job took two weeks.

In 1952, Jack Lee, who had just applied for the position of Director of Bands, looked down from a plane as it flew over the UA campus and saw the block letters of "Bear Down" on the roof of the gym. By the time he arrived home at the University of Michigan, the words and music to "Bear Down, Arizona" were nearly finished. A few weeks later he accepted the job at UA and "Bear Down, Arizona" became the school's fight song.

"Button Salmon Day" was declared and the bust of Salmon was unveiled in front of McKale Center on Oct. 18, 1996, 60 years after Salmon's untimely death.

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