NOTE: This is part of our continuing countdown of the Top 50 football players in Arizona Wildcats history. This feature focuses on those players who made historical contributions to the program and the university.
The words reach out, nearly 87 years later, an exhortation, an inspiration, from the death bed of former University of Arizona quarterback John Button Salmon.
Those words, a rallying cry for generations, are more prominent than ever, stretching across 75 yards of the new FieldTurf at Arizona Stadium: Bear Down.
No former Wildcats athlete has left a more-permanent mark than Salmon, who, according to legend, gave football coach J.F. “Pop” McKale in 1926 a message for the team after being critically injured in an automobile crash.
“Tell them,” Salmon said, “tell the team to bear down.”
After Salmon died Oct. 18 of that year, McKale relayed the message to the team, igniting an enduring tradition. Bear Down became the name of the Arizona’s first gym. Marching band director Jack Lee wrote the school’s fight song, “Bear Down, Arizona,” now heartily sung by the Wildcats in the locker room after football victories.
And, in a sign of the times, #BearDown is a popular Twitter hashtag for all UA-related topics.
The current athletic department administration is more keen than ever to market and brand the Bear Down story, a uniquely UA legend that can help the Wildcats — such a common nickname among colleges, including four at the Football Bowl Subdivision level — gain recognition in a crowded media world.
“You want to set yourself apart, and that is not just from an athletic-department standpoint, but for alumni and for fans,” said James Francis, a senior associate athletic director who was a walk-on defensive back at UA from 1990 to 1993.
“You want something you can call your own. Bear Down is certainly that.”
UA officials will be moving Salmon front and center this season at its new Lowell-Stevens Football Facility in the north end zone of Arizona Stadium. A bust and memorial to Salmon has stood outside McKale Center since 1986, but that will be moved this fall to the public entrance on the northeast side of the facility.
“For us, Bear Down is relevant across all our sports, not just football, but I think it’s an appropriate home,” Francis said.
It’s unclear yet whether the team, as it makes its Wildcat Walk to the stadium, will interact with the memorial, perhaps as Clemson does before home games, rubbing Howard’s Rock for luck.
The new playing surface at Arizona Stadium further provided a canvas for UA to tell its story. School officials opted to imprint the words Bear Down in ghost lettering — a lighter shade of green — across three-fourths of the field.
“For us, there is a history of having Bear Down as part of the pregame, whether it was a banner the team ran under or if it was on the field,” Francis said.
“With the turf being permanent, we kicked around some different ideas, and this is what we ended up with. Personally, I think it’s awesome. We have had a lot of positive feedback about it.
“If somebody sees that and knows what it means, they’re like, ‘OK, that’s cool.’ If they don’t, then it causes them to do what I did when I walked on to the campus, which is find out what it means. We want to educate people locally, regionally and nationally.”
And, as UA officials know, with the words so prominent on the field, TV announcers will be duty-bound to explain it to the masses.
For former UA coach Dick Tomey, Salmon’s expression hardly was limited to the stuff of pregame speeches. Asked what Bear Down meant to him and his teams, Tomey first cited the courage and fighting spirit of identical-twin star linebackers Kevin and Chris Singleton and their family. Kevin was diagnosed with leukemia in 1989, and Chris donated life-saving bone marrow.
“Once you get to UA, you really understand how much a part of the fiber of the university that Button Salmon was and that statement is,” Tomey said. “I think we used it a lot … especially when we were given a real-life situation.”
Salmon wasn’t the only historical contributor at UA. About a decade after his death, running back Robert Svob arrived at UA from Jerome High. Svob’s later contributions were felt all over the city, including leading work with the YMCA, Arizona Boys Ranch and Big Brothers of Tucson. He served as an Arizona assistant athletic director, director of intramural sports for 17 years and as the dean of students. He remains on the Arizona Hall of Fame selection committee.
Karl Eller, who lettered from 1949-51, became an Arizona and national business leader, notably in outdoor advertising. It’s his name on the university’s Eller College of Management.
And running back Fred Batiste was a Tucson High grad who in 1949 became the first Black letterman at UA, serving as inspiration to a generation that followed. One of those was Ernie McCray, who also attended Tucson High before becoming a basketball star at UA from 1957 to 1960. He holds the single-game UA record with 46 points.
“We lived in the same neighborhood,” McCray said of the Batiste family, including older brother Joe, a legendary Tucson track athlete.
“Fred was our hero, our first at the college level; up until it was the guys wearing the big red ‘T’ of Tucson High who made us sigh. Nice man. … And he could run, like Joe. If he got past the last man it was no contest. I don’t know what kind of student he was, but he sure opened some doors. As I remember, there was a lull as far as Black football players, and about the time I enrolled in 1956 that was changing.”