Johnny Bright’s Legacy Lives On

By Courtesy of the Globe and Mail By Allan Maki
Updated: September 30, 2006
CANADA—Somewhere, probably up there in the heavens, Johnny Bright must be having himself a chuckle.

Last September, the apology came. It was made by an Oklahoma State University president who was just a kid back when The Johnny Bright Incident happened. And it came a little late — 54 years late, to be exact. But hey, why quibble? An apology is an apology.

Besides, Saturday in Des Moines, Iowa, Drake University will name its football field after the greatest player to ever grace its institution, that player being Johnny Bright.

Kandis Bright and Deanie Bright-Johnson, his daughters, will be at Drake for the celebration. School officials and this year’s Drake football squad will take part and certainly the man himself will be there in spirit, as he should be.

But what many of us don’t know is why he came to Canada; that it had to do with The Johnny Bright Incident and how it spotlighted racial intolerance, produced a Pulitzer Prize and changed the rules of U.S. college football. For those reasons — along with his undeniable skill at running with a football — the apology and honours are long overdue.

Today is Johnny Bright’s day in Des Moines. Twenty-three years after his death, people still can’t forget what he did and what he endured.

He was on his way to being the first black player to win Heisman Trophy as sure as there are cornfields in Iowa. In 1949 and 1950, the bushy eye-browed son of a mid-western steelworker had lead all of U.S. college football in total offence. In his senior year, Bright had pushed Drake to five consecutive wins heading into an Oct. 21, 1951 road game against Oklahoma A&M College (now Oklahoma State).

The mood for that game, according to newspaper reports and records, was ugly. Bright was one of the first black athletes to play in the Missouri Valley Conference (one of the last conferences outside the Deep South to integrate) and the first black athlete to play in Stillwater, Okla., home to A&M.

The Stillwater newspaper ran a headline that said, “Bright is a marked man.” Speculation swirled that Bright wouldn’t make it to the end of the game. When he arrived in town, Bright was not allowed to stay with his white teammates. He spent the night at the home of a black family.

On game day, on one of Drake’s early offensive possessions, Bright took the snap, made a hand-off to a teammate then watched the action unfold. While that was happening, Oklahoma lineman Wilbanks Smith made a beeline for Bright, pulled back his right arm and slugged Bright in the face.

In those days, players didn’t wear face masks and the force of the punch broke Bright’s jaw. Helped off the field, Bright returned a few plays later and threw a 61-yard touchdown pass only to be dropped by another Smith shot to the head.

As predicted, Bright didn’t finish the game and Drake lost 27-14. Although he managed to appear in one more game that season (with a facemask and his jaw wired shot), Bright’s hopes of winning the Heisman Trophy as the best player in college football were dashed.

And realistically, the whole thing would have been forgotten had it not been for two photographers from the Des Moines Register. They captured Smith’s vicious hit on Bright in frame-by-frame action and their photos shocked readers not only in Iowa but across the U.S. In fact, the photographs were re-printed in Life magazine and the New York Times because they captured the racial prejudice blacks faced in all walks of life and sport.

For their work, photographers John Robinson and Don Ultang won a Pulitzer Prize, journalism’s equivalent of an Oscar. Soon after what was dubbed The Johnny Bright Incident, Drake officials demanded Smith be fined or suspended and that Oklahoma be sanctioned by the Missouri Valley Conference. When no fines, suspensions or apologies were offered, Drake withdrew from the MVC.

The only good news was that the mugging of Bright resulted in stricter blocking rules and made face masks mandatory. It also helped other black athletes, who were spared similar attacks because of heightened public awareness and media scrutiny.

But for Bright, the damage was done. Although he was the top draft pick of the National Football League’s Philadelphia Eagles three months later, Bright hemmed and hawed about signing. In the end, he went to Calgary. The money there was better ($12,000 a season with a $2,000 signing bonus) and so was the public’s acceptance of blacks.

“I would have been (the Eagles’) first negro player,” Bright was quoted as saying after his retirement from the CFL in 1963. “There was a tremendous influx of Southern players into the NFL at that time and I didn’t know what kind of treatment I could expect.”

With the Eskimos, Bright became the first black player to win the CFL’s most outstanding player award. When his playing career ended, he became a Canadian citizen and taught at a junior high school in Edmonton. He coached football and basketball, led his teams to city and provincial titles. He eventually became a principal and civic leader, raising funds to assist underprivileged kids.

On Dec. 14, 1983, he was undergoing knee surgery when he suffered a heart attack and died. He was 53. One of the floral arrangements at Bright’s funeral came from Wilbanks Smith. The 50th anniversary of The Johnny Bright Incident was recalled in a number of U.S. publications and also through a TNT television documentary dubbed Moment of Impact: Stories of the Pulitzer Prize Photographs. But with a field named in his honour in Edmonton, and now another where he first came to prominence, those who knew him best insist Bright must be up there smiling.

He got his accolades, and last September Oklahoma State University president David Schmidly wrote this to his Drake counterpart: “I … was pleased we could thoughtfully discuss the 1951 Johnny Bright incident. The incident was an ugly mark on Oklahoma State University and college football and we regret the harm it caused Johnny Bright, your university, and many others …”

(Postscript: TSN recently announced its plans to name the top 50 players in CFL history. Voters from across the country will make their selections with the final 50 being announced during Grey Cup week in Winnipeg. Johnny Bright is almost certain to be chosen.)