Johnny Thunderbird

The History of Johnny Thunderbird

St. John's unveils Johnny Thunderbird to the world.
A week-long St. John’s student vote to name the new Red Storm Thunderbird mascot resulted in what is now a triple-reference to the University’s storied athletics program. The avian character, who has been touring the University’s New York City campuses and has appeared at several athletic events since first arriving on the scene on Sept. 19, has been officially named “Johnny the Thunderbird,” paying tribute to three eras of what is more than a century-old athletics tradition.

The student-chosen name “Johnny” is, in fact, a reference to the first days of St. John’s athletics. At the turn of the century during the early years of intercollegiate competition, St. John’s teams were actually known as the “Johnnies.” It wasn’t until the 1920s that “Redmen” was first used and that came about when a reporter used the term after the football team took the field clad in totally red uniforms.

Moving into the next era, and according to several written sources and many an old tale, a group of St. John’s students led by Walter Bruce (Class of 1939) and Michael McNichols (Class of 1931) went out and found the original Redman mascot standing in front of a cigar store. “Chief Blackjack” made his first public appearance in his new position at the St. John’s-Catholic University football game at Ebbets Field. When the underdog Redmen went on to a 22-0 victory, there was no turning back. Bruce later admitted that he and others returned and paid for the pilfered mascot.

This is where the “Thunderbird” dual-reference comes into play. Paying tribute to the “Redmen” nickname and mixing in the “Red Storm” concept as well, the Thunderbird was defined as follows during the original fan voting: “A mythological spirit of thunder and lightning believed by some Native Americans to take the shape of a great bird. Boasting feathers as long as a canoe, the legendary thunderbird can generate lightning, thunder and great winds by flapping its wings and blinking its eyes.”

The Thunderbird was chosen during a 12-day span between April 23 and May 4, when more than 11,000 votes were cast on to decide among the six Red Storm mascot finalists. The Thunderbird mascot was announced two weeks ago, and now, “Johnny the Thunderbird” will be visible at many St. John’s athletic events, as well as on campus and in the greater New York City community.

The St. John’s Thunderbird was created by Olympus Inc., renowned nationally as the mascot costume industry’s premier designer. Olympus has manufactured a wide variety of corporate, entertainment and university mascot costumes. Highly visible mascot costumes, including Ronald McDonald, Tony the Tiger, The University of Wisconsin Badger and The University of Florida Gator have been designed and manufactured using the Olympus design team’s creative expertise.

The decision was made to change the “Redmen” nickname in 1994. At the time, colleges nationwide were becoming more sensitive to mounting Native American concerns in reference to collegiate and professional team nicknames that reference Native American culture. Although the nickname “Redmen” was instituted because the athletes at St. John’s wore red, and did not have an original basis in Native American culture, it did evolve into a nickname that referenced Native American symbology. St. John’s wanted to make a change that would stay true to its tradition, but also be distinctive and unique. Thus, the new nickname Red Storm was born.