Who is Johnny Thunderbird?

Before Johnny Thunderbird came to be, legend and several written records have it, Walter Bruce (’39) and Michael McNicholas (’31) thought up the original Redmen mascot while in front of a cigar store. He was drawn as a Native American man in a war bonnet dribbling a basketball. 

The all-red illustration was dubbed “Chief Blackjack” and made his debut at a Redmen football game; Chief Blackjack’s entrance was highlighted with victory as he cheered the team on to a 22-0 win. In 2002 football would cease to exist at the University. 

While the “Redmen” nickname was born in the 1920s — a play on the University’s colors made by a reporter — in broader culture, the name eventually morphed into a derogatory reference to Native Americans. 

In the 1990s, however, collegiate institutions were becoming increasingly aware of the negative connotations of sport team names derived from Native American cultures. Professional and college sport leagues are making changes to their logos and team names to this day, and many teams still have a ways to go.

In 1994, the Redmen officially became the Red Storm, and on May 4, 2009, “Chief Blackjack” became the “Thunderbird.” 

A thunderbird was defined as, “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” is an homage to Native American culture, honoring those who inhabited Long Island. It is a nod to a strong, valued symbol of Native American culture that guides our institution. 

It took 12 days and 11,000 votes to crown the Thunderbird the winner out of the six mascot options presented to fans. The list of the next potential mascot included Thunderbolt, Thunderbird, Red Storm Dog, Storm Hero, Red Storm Bear and Thunder Horse. 

On Sept. 18, 2009, the nameless Thunderbird took his first flight at a home soccer game, cheering on the Red Storm to victory with a 2-0 win against Georgetown University. 

A second, week-long vote was enacted by St. John’s Marketing to give the Thunderbird a name. The name “Johnny” was derived from St. John’s University’s original nickname, the “Johnnies.” 

Olympus Inc., the creators of costumes for iconic figures such as Ronald McDonald and Tony the Tiger, created the vibrant red and white rings and thunderbolt chest Johnny Thunderbird dons today. 

Over the last few decades, Johnny Thunderbird has undergone a few face lifts and name changes, but has always been a symbol for Johnnies past and present to identify with. Johnny Thunderbird is the compiled result of an over century-old athletic experience and will continue to cheer us into victory for centuries to come.