While many know the Cornell Bear, the costumed mascot cheering on Big Red athletics, not many know the story behind how Touchdown the Bear came to be a part of the university’s history. Touchdown was not always a student suited up in the stuffed bear costume; at one time, the mascot was a living, breathing, honey-loving, trouble-making bear cub.
The original bear cub first came to the Cornell campus in 1915, the football team’s first undefeated season. Three more live bears, over the course of two decades, made their mark at Cornell. Touchdown II, III, and IV were brought to university in subsequent years including 1916, 1919, and 1939. The bears traveled to games on the team train, lodged in hotels, broke into candy stores, partied at night clubs, were kidnapped by opposing fans, escaped into the Atlantic Ocean, spent time in the clink, and entertained and inspired the crowds and the Cornell football team during their years on campus.
Touchdown appears on the logo for Cornell Athletics and is commemorated across the campus in concrete and wooden carvings and represented in a statue erected outside Teagle Hall in 2015 – a celebration of the 100th anniversary of the original Touchdown and Cornell’s first undefeated football season. The names of the 1915 team players, coaches, and managers are inscribed around the plaza wall surrounding the piece commemorating Cornell’s original bear.
The story behind these "real" Cornell bears, and the tradition they inspired, is chronicled in John Foote’s Touchdown: The Story of the Cornell Bear, which describes how the four bears came to Ithaca and the people involved. The story is not a new one, but Foote wanted to record and document as real and factual an account of the history of Touchdown, the original Cornell bear, as he could. Foote was a 1974 Cornell graduate, is an active alum member, and Executive Director of the Cornell Institute for Public Affairs, Policy Analysis and Management (CPIP).
“Much has been said about these founding bears… the bears’ history has become muddled. It is time that the true tale of these bears is recorded so that their tradition- our tradition- is based on facts (as we know them),” said Foote. He did admit though that while he did do his research and stayed as true to the facts as he could, he “never let the facts get in the way of a good story. I had to make my best guess on some elements.”
Foote first self-published the book in 2008 and then published a second edition in 2017 after the Cornell University Press.
During his time at Cornell as a bit of a lark senior year, Foote became a cheerleader. On the beautiful fall day of the 1973 Cornell vs. Colgate game, halftime came and suddenly a battle cry from the Colgate student section of “Get the bear!” rang out as they streamed onto the field.
“We didn’t know what the Colgate students had in mind so we [the cheering squad including Foote] told the Bear to run, but he was seeing impaired in that costume and ran straight into the end zone goal post and knocked himself out cold. We thought he was dead, and upon removing his stuffed bear head, we all realized it was Bill Quain, a friend of ours since freshman year of college,” laughed Foote.
After this incident, a lifelong friendship with Quain, and his continued involvement in the Cornell and Ithaca communities, Foote found himself with a particular interest in the story of the Cornell bear.
“Quain remains an unforgettable character and a good friend, and is probably the reason why the topic of this book is of particular interest to me,” said Foote.
Foote includes anecdotes and stories that were never even circulated as rumors before the book came to be. Particularly hilarious were the letter in the Cornell Daily Sun on behalf of Touchdown. He does a great job of giving us facts and well-researched story, thorough and detailed, while keeping us engaged and entertained. And the author is just as interesting and charming in person as is his writing style and voice. The book also includes some great images from the years Touchdown was on the Cornell campus and serving as a living, breathing mascot for the football team. There are copies of programs from games featuring the bear as well even those from other universities.
Touchdown offers great insight into the strong history of spirit, rich culture, and traditions of Cornell University through a story of four bears and how the Big Read Bear came to be. It is an entertaining, engaging read offering laugh out loud moments and igniting interest in learning more about the history behind the original Cornell bears. It is perfect for any Cornell-affiliated reader but also those in the Ithaca community, a true collegetown heavily influenced by this century old university.