JB

Let me tell you about Johnny Bright.

Bright grew up in an African-American neighbourhood in Fort Wayne, Indiana with his mom, step-dad and a few siblings. He was a talented sportsman; playing football, basketball and track for his high school and leading the school teams to either local championships or state finals in football and basketball.

When Johnny graduated in 1947, he accepted a scholarship at Michigan State to play football, who were one of the giants of college football at the time. However, unhappy with the direction of the program, he transferred to Drake University, a small private college in Des Moines Iowa. After being redshirted during his freshman, Bright began his college football career as a quarterback/halfback in 1949. He passed for 975 yards and rushed for a further 975, leading Drake to a 6-2-1 season. To put this in perspective, his passing yardage is about a quarter of an NFL quarterback’s season passing yards while his rushing yards, thanks to his experience at halfback, are better than the first NFL season of all 32 current starting NFL quarterbacks (there are maybe 3 quarterbacks who even come close to Bright’s stat). He only got better in the 1950 season, setting an NCAA record for total offensive yards and again leading Drake to a 6-2-1 season. Johnny Bright was a legend in the making.

Then came the 1951 season. Things started well- Bright was considered a surefire candidate for the Heisman Trophy during the pre-season and cemented these feelings by leading Drake on an unbeaten streak in the first five weeks of the season. Saturday, October 20th rolled around and the Drake team travelled the 513 miles from Des Moines to Stillwater, Oklahoma for their match against Oklahoma A&M (Now Oklahoma State). A&M were 1-3 going into the game and would go on to finish the season 3-7. Bright had become the first African–American player to play at A&M’s stadium, Lewis Field, during the 1949 match between the teams. But things were different this time, A&M’s The Daily O’Collegian and Stillwater’s The News Press both described Bright as being a marked man and many A&M students were openly claiming that Bright “would not be around at the end of the game” while students interviewed after the game said they had overheard coaches yelling “get that nigger” when the A&M practice squad ran Drake plays in the week before the game.

The game was horrific- Oklahoma DT Wilbanks Smith knocked Bright unconscious three times in the opening seven minutes, breaking the QB’s jaw on the third occasion. Bright still managed to complete a 61-yard touchdown pass a few plays later before he had to leave the field due to the injury. The final score? Oklahoma 24, Drake 17.

JB handoff
Johnny Bright (circled) hands the ball to FB Gene Macomber
JB Tackle
Johnny Bright is tackled by Smith. Macomber can clearly be seen with the ball towards the bottom of the photo

This story of how racism fuelled a shocking display of football may never have come to light, however, if it wasn’t for Bob Spiegel and Don Ultang. They worked as cameramen for the Des Moines Register and had a camera focused on Bright once the threats of him being a marked man became too large to ignore. The two photos you can see above are part of a sequence published 10 days after the incident. The article also included the “get that nigger” story from A&M students as well as a member of the practice squad showing a local businessman, sat in front of Spiegel, a facial injury he claimed was from Smith practicing his jaw-breaking tackle. The photographic sequence would go on to win the 1952 Pulitzer Prize.

Oklahoma A&M adopted a total denial attitude about the incident and continued to suppress the story, from their end at least, for the next 50 years. Drake University would later pull out of the Missouri Valley Conference in protest of the lack of reprimand for Smith and would not return to the Conference until 1971, Bradley University, who quit in solidarity, would never return to football in the conference. But this isn’t about Oklahoma A&M, this is about Johnny Bright. Despite having his jaw broken, Bright earned 70% of Drake’s yardage for the season and scored 70% of their points. He came fifth in the Heisman ballots.

At the 1952 NFL Draft, Bright was picked as the 5th overall pick of the draft by the Philadelphia Eagles. Due to the influx of southern educated players to the NFL and worries about how he would be treated, Bright declined and instead went to Calgary to play in the precursor to the CFL. However, it would be at the Edmonton Eskimos that Bright enjoyed the most success, joining midway through the 1954 season, he would go on to win three consecutive Grey Cups. He also worked as a teacher in Edmonton to provide for his family, as CFL salaries are not what they are today. Bright played 13 seasons of professional football, retiring in 1964 with a heap of records under his belt. After football, Bright continued to teach and was eventually principal of two junior highs in Edmonton.

Johnny Bright died in December 1983 and was buried in Edmonton, survived by his wife and four children.

Epilogue

-Oklahoma State University formally apologised for the Johnny Bright incident in September 2005, fifty-four years after the incident and twenty-two years after Bright’s death.

-The football field at Drake Stadium was named after Bright following renovations in 2006.

-During a 2006 interview, Wilbanks Smith, the DT who made the infamous tackles, maintained that he didn’t see the targeting of Bright as racially motivated.

-Canadian sports network, TSN, ranked Bright as the 19th best CFL player of the modern era in a November 2006 poll.

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