Looking Back and Looking Up

By Charles McKenzie, November 15, 2019
Cortaca memories comfort grieving Red Dragon and Bomber brothers.

Last spring, Ithaca College football coach Dan Swanstrom came back from a recruiting trip to find a larger than average stack of mail, which historically had just been an assortment of junk mail and maybe a check or two made out to IC’s football program. 

He was happy to find an envelope with a check. Then another. Then a few more. More than 50 checks later ranging from $20 to $500, he knew something was up. 

He wouldn’t learn why for several months, and it would be from an unlikely source, a Cortland grad. In response to a routine state-of-the-football-program letter to IC alumni, Swanstrom heard back from Paula Jordan, who married Mike Jordan, a member of the Bombers’ 1979 football team, which was inducted into IC’s Athletics Hall of Fame after winning the college its first national championship. 

Always a fierce competitor but this time up against cancer, Mike Jordan was coming to terms with a disease that was running out the clock. Making preparations, he asked that donations be made to IC’s football team, which he and his family adored. Well, most of them.

Being married to a Cortland graduate had created a (usually) fun rivalry in the Jordan home. The couple purposely married the week after what was traditionally Cortaca weekend. 

“I didn’t want to spend every anniversary at Cortaca,” Paula said. Lo and behold, the colleges soon moved the game to their anniversary weekend. “It was like fate,” she joked. But still, the couple missed only one Cortaca before last year, when Mike was sick (they still watched it on TV). 

Paula wasn’t just married to one Bomber football player; she was married into a whole family of them, all raised in Ithaca. At one point, two of Mike’s brothers (Norm and Rick) were teammates on Jim Butterfield’s National Championship team. His other brother Pat would play for IC in 1986. 

After it was announced that the 2019 Cortaca Jug would be played in MetLife Stadium (this Saturday at 1 p.m.), Mike desperately wanted to live long enough to go.

As they realized that wouldn’t be possible, Paula promised him she would go and bring him along in spirit. A 6’1,” 190-pound tight end with a very gentle soul, Mike always loved balloons. She promised him she would release a few from the tailgate.

But a Red Dragon in a Bomber family, Paula had to get in her digs when and where she could. In his final days, she reminded him of the balloons she would release and slyly informed him they would all be Cortland red. 

He was very sick, and when she didn’t get the spirited reaction she was expecting from him, she grew worried. She said it again. “The balloons will all be red.” 

Frail but still feisty, No. 84 shot back. “Eight blue. Four red.” 

Sadly, Mike died in February, within a year of his brother Norm, who had also requested that memorial donations be made to Ithaca College. They wanted to keep it in the family.

“This is just so much more than a game,” Swanstrom said. “The roots run deep, especially in these families.” 

That’s true for both the “football families”...and the biological ones.

Before Swanstrom told the story at Wednesday’s pre-Cortaca press conference, 2019 captain Nick Garone spoke. He also comes from an Ithaca family. Every year since 2011, a Garone has been a part of Cortaca. In fact, his father was instrumental in getting the game moved to MetLife Stadium this year. He also came from a split family. His mother is a Cortland grad. 

Football brothers will join real brothers Sunday. 

The most moving might be a group of former Bombers and national champions, along with at least one Red Dragon, all standing around Mike and Paula Jordan’s car.

If the balloons don’t give it away, his license plate will: Bomber84.