Today is the date 90 years ago that Arizona quarterback, captain and student-body president John Byrd “Button” Salmon passed away because of injuries from an automobile accident. Legend has it that Salmon, nicknamed “Button” by his family because of his small frame of 5-8 and 145 pounds, told coach J.F. “Pop” McKale, “Tell them … tell the team to bear down” before he died.
Five days after Salmon passed away — and one day after he would have celebrated his 23rd birthday — the Wildcats were about to take the field against New Mexico A&M (now known as New Mexico State) in Las Cruces, N.M., when McKale attracted their attention and gathered them together.
The story goes that’s when McKale passed along Salmon’s message to the Wildcats. An inspired Arizona team defeated the Aggies in front of a capacity crowd at John O. Miller Field, scoring a touchdown in the third quarter. That’s all the Wildcats needed. Arizona was 5-1-1 in 1926 and they allowed only 18 points all season.
“There is absolutely no question about what McKale said to the team that day because I was there to hear it,” Frank Gibbings told the Tucson Citizen’s Dave Petruska in a 1986 article on the unveiling of the bronze statue of Salmon outside UA’s McKale Center. The statue is now outside the Lowell-Stevens football facility at the north of the stadium.
Gibbings played football at Arizona in 1925 and was an assistant coach under McKale the year Salmon died.
Salmon’s last game on record was Arizona’s 16-0 exhibition victory over the Wildcat freshmen team (named the Kiddie Cats) on Oct. 2, 1926. Adding to his legend, Salmon — a popular senior and overwhelming vote-getter for student body president in a 1925 ballot — threw a 30-yard touchdown pass as time expired to sophomore John McArdle. Appropriately, Salmon’s last play was a touchdown pass.
The day after the win over the freshmen team, Salmon was driving at a reportedly high rate of speed while returning from Phoenix in his Ford Model A with teammate Ted Diebold — notice the last name? — and a female student. The three were returning from a trip to Diebold’s home in Phoenix. Salmon missed a dangerous curve and hit a dirt embankment along the road near Florence. His car overturned and he was pinned underneath the wreckage until another driver came upon the scene shortly afterward. The passengers were both ejected from the car but were not seriously injured.
According to a report in the Tucson Citizen, Salmon’s car “turned turtle at the bottom of a grade just north of Florence.”
“Following the accident, Salmon was given treatment in Florence and on the following day was brought to this city in an ambulance,” the Citizen reported. “An operation was performed at once by Drs. Victor Gore and E.J. Gotthelf, to relieve the pressure on the spinal column, as in the accident several vertebrae were dislocated, shattering the spinal column.”
Salmon was paralyzed from the neck down. Although he regained slight use of his arms and managed to stay alive for 14 more days, his condition never improved out of a critical state. He died in the early-morning hours of Oct. 18, 1926, at Southern Methodist Hospital in Tucson. Conflicting reports have Salmon muttering his “Bear Down” line to McKale the day before his passing or the moments before taking his last breath.
McKale was by his side every day throughout the ordeal, including in Florence a few hours after the accident. The loss of Salmon, who was raised in Bisbee and was also an accomplished baseball catcher for the Wildcats, affected the Tucson community in general.
Arizona classes were cancelled on the day of his death. The next day, his body lay in state, in the campus auditorium, for students to honor their fallen leader.
UA president Cloyd H. Marvin was quoted as saying by the Tucson Citizen: “The death of John Byrd Salmon, student body president, brings sorrow to the university. His going is a great loss to us. Fine, clean, upstanding, and fearless, he represented that which marks Arizona men. The tradition of life which he leaves with, will help us all in the tasks that we have to perform. I shall always remember him as one who fought for that which he felt was right in the light of the background which was at his command.”
The Wildcats were at Salmon’s command on that fateful day, Oct. 23, 1926, when they beat New Mexico A&M with his words “Bear Down” ringing in their ears. Who knows how a defeat to the Aggies would have affected Salmon’s “Bear Down” mystique?
A year later, the student body elected to use “Bear Down” as its slogan. Students painted the slogan on the roof of University Gymnasium and it has since been known as Bear Down Gym. Jack Lee, the school’s band director 30 years later, wrote the fight song “Bear Down Arizona”. A highway memorial to the Bear Down tradition was dedicated in spring 2008 at Florence, Ariz., near the spot where Salmon was tragically injured (see accompanying YouTube video).
The Arizona Republic once wrote of Salmon: “Schoolmates recall, with a bit of sadness, how tears would swell into the eyes of this chap, a bundle of energy, ‘built close to the ground,’ when the Wildcats lost a game.”
Hollywood has yet to come calling. Kevin Costner, where are you?
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ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon.