The modest granite slab at Evergreen Cemetery, its gray tint dulled by 85 years in the sun, is a simple monument to the young man this newspaper once called "the flame-thatched fighting quarterback."


1903 - 1926

Decades later, someone from the family of John Byrd Salmon paid for a smaller but more descriptive stone to be laid nearby. It says, for perpetuity:



Last week, a few days after Button Salmon would have turned 107, I drove to Evergreen Cemetery and stood in the stillness. I thought of the times I have heard a raucous UA football team sing "Bear Down, Arizona," in the winner's locker room.

I thought of the glory days at McKale Center, when the pep band would play "Bear Down, Arizona" at precisely the moment Duke or UCLA or the Oregon Ducks were on the ropes and the din of the crowd made the moment electric.

I thought of the first time I flew into Tucson, circling the city from the east, noting the giant block letters B-E-A-R D-O-W-N on the roof of the UA's old basketball arena.

Button Salmon was about 5 feet 8 inches and maybe 150 pounds when he last quarterbacked the Wildcats in 1926, but he has since become a giant of a man.

All of the men who played with him, or coached him, are dead. Those who have shared with me over the years fascinating eyewitness snippets of the Bear Down legend - among them, classmate Ralph Deal, who in 1927 painted the letter "B" on the roof of Bear Down Gym; Bisbee attorney Martin Gentry, a tackle on the '26 UA football team; and Button's sister, Clyde "Babe" Lockie - died long ago.

It has been 20 years since I learned anything new about Button Salmon, but last week, sitting at a downtown patio a few yards from the railroad station at which Salmon arrived from Bisbee as a UA freshman in the fall of 1923, a treasure of new information arrived.

Phoenix attorney Riney Salmon, who is Button's nephew, and Tucson chief bankruptcy judge James M. Marlar, whose father, Lennox, was a starting lineman for the '26 Wildcats, spent 90 minutes sharing Bear Down stories, images and paraphernalia.

In this business, in this town, it was priceless.

"Button got off the train and found some upperclassmen waiting to haze him and the other freshmen," said Riney Salmon, a graduate of the UA College of Law. "They put a beanie on his head. He took it off. He told them 'I'm not going to wear your beanie.' He established a presence right away."

Button Salmon was not, as some have long suggested, a man of privilege. His father, Frank, a former deputy sheriff in San Angelo, Texas, worked as a night watchman in the Bisbee copper mines.

"Years ago, my father - Button's brother - drove us to Bisbee to show us where they lived," Riney Salmon remembers. "Their old home, a shack really, had been abandoned. It was at the bottom of a dry wash. Button was a self-made man: student body president, star baseball catcher, captain of the football team."

He was not, as some stories persist, an irresponsible lout or a drunken college kid when his spinal column was fractured in early October 1926, fatally injuring him when his vehicle failed to negotiate a turn on a rugged dirt road a few miles north of Florence.

"My dad told me many times that Button was a leader," Marlar said. "The school's got a good thing going. Who else can match the Bear Down motto? My dad was encouraged that it had stayed that way for so long."

The day after Button died, his body lied in state at the UA Student Union. Afternoon classes were canceled. Deal told me that on the day of his funeral, at Evergreen Cemetery, a line of cars went several miles, delaying the start of the services.

Three days later, playing its scheduled football game at New Mexico State, UA coach Pop McKale gathered his team before warm-ups and relayed Salmon's deathbed message.

"Tell them … tell the team to Bear Down."

It didn't take long for the Bear Down legend to grow. Marlar has in his possession the 1927 UA student yearbook. At the bottom of each page are the script words BEAR DOWN.

"Over the years, a lot of people have doubted the veracity of the story," Marlar said. "I have no doubt about the exchange between Pop and Button, but now, all these years later, it doesn't really matter.

"In the West, when there's a choice between legend and truth, legend always wins."

Contact Greg Hansen at 573-4362 or