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Homecoming: Why Do Wildcats Bear Down?

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Alex McIntyre | The Daily Wildcat A bust of John "Button" Salmon sits on a pedestal outside Arizona Stadium. Salmon's famous advice for Pop McKale and the Arizona football team, "Tell them ... tell the team to bear down," still stands as a motto and way of life for Wildcats."

Wildcats 'Bear Down' because 91 years ago on October 17, 1926, John Byrd “Button” Salmon told us to.

In the fall of 1926, Salmon was the new University of Arizona student body president, member of the “A” Club, the Bobcats, the Chain Gang, Sigma Nu Social Fraternity, a baseball catcher and a star varsity quarterback. 

After the varsity football team won against the freshman team in an annual match in early October, Salmon and two of his fraternity brothers took a trip to Phoenix. 

On their trip back to Tucson, Salmon and his fraternity brothers were in a rollover car accident near Florence that left him paralyzed below his second rib and in critical condition. Fourteen days later, Salmon, 22, died at St. Mary’s Hospital, but his last words to McKale and his team continue to live on to this day. 

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“Tell them…tell the team to bear down,” Salmon said to  UA football coach at the time, James E. “Pop” Mckale. 

The football team listened to the words of Salmon, and won its next two games. Salmon’s words began to spread throughout campus. Students painted “Bear Down” on top of the university’s gymnasium, now known as Bear Down Gym. 

The following January after the accident, “Bear Down” became UA’s official slogan. 

In 1986, a bronze bust of Salmon was placed outside of McKale Memorial Center, and was recently relocated in 2013 to an area near Lowell-Stevens Football Facility, a spot better suited for the bust due to Salmon’s participation in football. 

In the Spring of 2008, a highway memorial in honor of Salmon and the traditions he began was put up along State Route 79 near the accident site near Florence.

A new tradition began in 2013 with the relocation. UA football players pass by and touch the bust as they finish the “Wildcat Walk” before every home game in honor of Salmon. Inside the stadium, “Bear Down” can also be found on the turf.

More recently, “Bear Down” was painted at the intersection of Cherry Street and University Boulevard through the leadership of Zona Zoo. This will be repainted annually before the start of the football season as another tradition stemming from Salmon and his last words to his team. 

To this day, it is almost impossible to walk through campus without hearing or seeing “bear down” at least once, whether it’s from signs around campus, from peers and faculty, or “Bear Down Arizona” playing from the campus bell tower daily.

“There’s nobody else with the story of bear down. It’s our differentiator. This is something that’s unique to the University of Arizona,” said James Francis, Senior Associate Director of Athletics and External Operations. 

Francis said over the last ten years, UA has been making even more of an effort to keep the traditions and history of Salmon alive by branding “Bear Down” on their website, in social media and on print, in a higher profile use: on the artificial turf in the stadium, and by making sure the story of Salmon remains accurate. 

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“That’s a pretty epic and historic story to be told and it gives me a lot of joy that it has transcended over generations. It resonates with everyone,” Lloyd Fox, graduate of ’89 and former member of the Bobcats, said. 

So, What Does Bear Down Mean to You?

Llyod Fox, Graduate of 1989 and former member of Bobcats: “To me, it means that a Wildcat never gives up. That no matter what’s upon them, you reach within and grab everything you can, and you bring it.”

James Francis, Senior Associate Director of Athletics and External Operations: “To me, it’s an association with the school and a sense of pride and a connection with fans.”

Melinda Burke, President of the Alumni Association: “It’s this institutional pride combined with hard work and smarts to be successful.” 


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