June 11, 1930|
Fort Wayne, Indiana
December 14, 1983 (aged 53)|
|Height||6 ft 1 in (185 cm)|
|Weight||217 lb (98 kg)|
|NFL draft||1952 / Round: 1 / Pick: 5|
|Drafted by||Philadelphia Eagles|
|Career highlights and awards|
1957 Eddie James Memorial Trophy|
1958 Eddie James Memorial Trophy
1959 CFL's Most Outstanding Player
1959 Eddie James Memorial Trophy
|Honors||1983 – Edmonton Eskimos Wall of Honour|
|Retired #s||43 Drake University|
|Rushing||10,909 yards (Avg: 5.5; TDs: 67)|
|Kickoff Returns||29 (Avg: 14.6 yards; TDs: 0)|
|Punt Returns||7 (Avg: 9.6 yards; TDs: 0)|
Johnny D. Bright (June 11, 1930 – December 14, 1983) was a professional Canadian football player in the Canadian Football League. He played college football at Drake University. He is a member of the Canadian Football Hall of Fame, the National Football Foundation's College Football Hall of Fame, the Missouri Valley Conference Hall of Fame, the Edmonton Eskimos Wall of Honour, the Alberta Sports Hall of Fame, and the Des Moines Register's Iowa Sports Hall of Fame.
In 1951, Bright was named a First Team College Football All-American, and was awarded the Nils V. "Swede" Nelson Sportsmanship Award. In 1969, Bright was named Drake University's greatest football player of all time. Bright is the only Drake football player to have his jersey number (No. 43) retired by the school, and in June 2006, received honorable mention from ESPN.com senior writer Ivan Maisel as one of the best college football players to ever wear No. 43. In February 2006, the football field at Drake Stadium, in Des Moines, Iowa, was named in his honor. In November 2006, Bright was voted one of the CFL's Top 50 players (No. 19) of the league's modern era by Canadian sports network TSN.
In addition to his outstanding professional and college football careers, Bright is perhaps best known for his role as the victim of an intentional, most likely racially motivated, on-field assault by an opposing college football player from Oklahoma A&M (now Oklahoma State University) on October 20, 1951, that was captured in a widely disseminated and Pulitzer Prize winning photo sequence, and eventually came to be known as the "Johnny Bright incident."
Born in Fort Wayne, Indiana on June 11, 1930, Bright was the second oldest of five brothers. Bright lived with his mother and step father Daniel Bates, brothers, Homer Bright, the eldest, Alfred, Milton, and Nate Bates, in a working class, predominantly African-American neighborhood in Fort Wayne.:13–14, 52
Bright was a three-sport (football, basketball, track and field) star at Fort Wayne's Central High School. Bright, who also was an accomplished softball pitcher and boxer, led Central High's football team to a City title in 1945, and helped the basketball team to two state tournament Final Four appearances.
Beginning of college football career
Following his graduation from Central High in 1947, Bright initially accepted a football scholarship at Michigan State University, but, apparently unhappy with the direction of the Spartans football program, transferred to Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, where he accepted a track and field scholarship that allowed him to try out for the football and basketball squads.:52 Bright eventually lettered in football, track, and basketball, during his collegiate career at Drake.
Following a mandatory freshman redshirt year, Bright began his collegiate football career in 1949, rushing for 975 yards and throwing for another 975 to lead the nation in total offense during his sophomore year, as the Drake Bulldogs finished their season at 6–2–1. In Bright's junior year, the halfback/quarterback rushed for 1,232 yards and passed for 1,168 yards, setting an NCAA record for total offense (2,400 yards) in 1950, and again led the Bulldogs to a 6–2–1 record.
Bright's senior year began with great promise. Bright was considered a pre-season Heisman Trophy candidate, and was leading the nation in both rushing and total offense with 821 and 1,349 yards respectively, when the Drake Bulldogs, winners of their previous five games, faced Missouri Valley Conference foe Oklahoma A&M at Lewis Field (now Boone Pickens Stadium) in Stillwater, Oklahoma, on October 20, 1951.
"Johnny Bright Incident"
Bright's participation as a halfback/quarterback in Drake's game against Oklahoma A&M on October 20, 1951, was controversial, as it marked the first time that such a prominent African-American athlete, with national notoriety (Bright was a pre-season Heisman Trophy candidate and led the nation in total offense going into the game) and of critical importance to the success of his team (Drake was undefeated and carried a five-game winning streak into the contest, due in large part to his rushing and passing), had played against Oklahoma A&M in a home game at Lewis Field, in Stillwater.
During the first seven minutes of the game, Bright had been knocked unconscious three times by blows from Oklahoma A&M defensive tackle Wilbanks Smith. While the final, elbow blow from Smith broke Bright's jaw, Bright was able to complete a 61-yard touchdown pass to halfback Jim Pilkington a few plays later before the injury finally forced Bright to leave the game. Bright finished the game with 75 yards (14 yards rushing and 61 yards passing), the first time he had finished a game with less than 100 yards in his three-year collegiate career at Drake. Oklahoma A&M eventually won the game 27-14.
A photographic sequence by Des Moines Register cameramen Don Ultang and John Robinson clearly showed that Smith's jaw breaking blow to Bright had occurred well after Bright had handed off the ball to fullback Gene Macomber, and that the blow was delivered well behind the play. Years later, Ultang said that he and Robinson were lucky to capture the incident when they did; they'd only planned to stay through the first quarter so they could get the film developed in time for the next day's edition.
It had been an open secret before the game that A&M was planning to target Bright. Even though A&M had integrated two years earlier, the Jim Crow spirit was still very much alive in Stillwater. Both Oklahoma A&M's student newspaper, The Daily O'Collegian, and the local newspaper, The News Press, reported that Bright was a marked man, and several A&M students were openly claiming that Bright "would not be around at the end of the game." Ultang and Robinson had actually set up their camera after rumors of Bright being targeted became too loud to ignore.
When it became apparent that neither Oklahoma A&M nor the MVC would take any disciplinary action against Smith, Drake withdrew from the MVC in protest and stayed out until 1956 (though it didn't return for football until 1971). Fellow member Bradley University pulled out of the league as well in solidarity with Drake; while it returned for non-football sports in 1955, Bradley never played another down of football in the MVC (it dropped football in 1970).
The "Johnny Bright Incident", as it became widely known, eventually provoked changes in NCAA football rules regarding illegal blocking, and mandated the use of more protective helmets with face guards.
Recalling the incident without apparent bitterness in a 1980 Des Moines Register interview three years before his death, Bright commented: "There's no way it couldn't have been racially motivated... ...What I like about the whole deal now, and what I'm smug enough to say, is that getting a broken jaw has somehow made college athletics better. It made the NCAA take a hard look and clean up some things that were bad."
Post-injury and end of college football career
Bright's jaw injury limited his effectiveness for the remainder of his senior season at Drake, but he finished his college career with 5,983 yards in total offense, averaging better than 236 yards per game in total offense, and scored 384 points in 25 games. As a senior, Bright earned 70 percent of the yards Drake gained and scored 70 percent of the Bulldogs' points, despite missing the better part of the final three games of the season.
Following his final football season at Drake (1951), Bright was named a First Team College Football All-American and finished fifth in the balloting for the 1951 Heisman Trophy. Bright was also awarded the Nils V. "Swede" Nelson Sportsmanship Award, and played in both the post-season East–West Shrine Game and the Hula Bowl.
In 1969, Bright was named Drake University's greatest football player of all time. He is also the only Drake football player to have his jersey number (No. 43) retired by the school. In June 2006, Bright received honorable mention from ESPN.com senior writer Ivan Maisel as one of the best college football players to ever wear No. 43.
Professional football career
Bright was the first pick of the Philadelphia Eagles in the first round of the 1952 National Football League draft. Bright spurned the NFL, electing to play for the Calgary Stampeders of the Western Interprovincial Football Union, the precursor to the West Division of the Canadian Football League. Bright later commented:
Bright joined the Calgary Stampeders as a fullback/linebacker in 1952, leading the Stampeders and the WIFU in rushing with 815 yards his rookie season. Bright played fullback/linebacker with the Stampeders for the 1952, 1953, and part of the 1954 seasons. In 1954, the Calgary Stampeders traded him to the Edmonton Eskimos in mid-season. He would enjoy the most success of his professional football career as a member of the Eskimos.
Though Bright played strictly defense as a linebacker in his first year with the Eskimos, he played both offense (as a fullback) and defense for two seasons (1955–1956), and played offense permanently after that (1957–1964). He, along with teammates Rollie Miles, Normie Kwong, and Jackie Parker, helped lead the Eskimos to successive Grey Cup titles in 1954, 1955, and 1956 (where Bright rushed for a then Grey Cup record of 171 yards in a 50–27 win over the Montreal Alouettes). In 1957, he rushed for eight consecutive 100-yard games, finishing the season with 1,679 yards. In 1958, he rushed for 1,722 yards. In 1959, following his third straight season as the Canadian pro rushing leader with 1,340 yards, Bright won the CFL's Most Outstanding Player Award, the first African-American or African-Canadian athlete to be so honored.
Bright was approached several times during his Canadian career by NFL teams about playing in the United States, but in the days before the blockbuster salaries of today's NFL players, it was common for CFL players such as him to hold regular jobs in addition to football, and he had already started a teaching career in 1957, the year he moved his family to Edmonton.
I'd established a home and Canada had been good to me. I might have been interested, if the offers could have matched what I was making from both football and teaching.
Bright retired in 1964 as the CFL's all-time leading rusher (Mike Pringle and George Reed have since surpassed him). Bright rushed for 10,909 yards in 13 seasons, had five consecutive 1,000 yard seasons, and led the CFL in rushing four times. While Bright is currently 15th on the All-Pro Rushing list, his career average of 5.5 yards per carry is the highest among 10,000+ yard rushers (Pro Football Hall of Famer Jim Brown is second at 5.2 yards per carry). At the time of his retirement, Bright had a then-CFL record thirty-six 100-plus-yard games, carrying the ball 200 or more times for five straight seasons. Bright led the CFL Western Conference in rushing four times, winning the Eddie James Memorial Trophy in the process, and was a CFL Western Conference All-Star five straight seasons from 1957 to 1961. Bright played in 197 consecutive CFL games as a fullback/linebacker. Bright's No. 24 jersey was added to the Edmonton Eskimos' Wall of Honour at the Eskimos' Commonwealth Stadium in 1983. Bright was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame on November 26, 1970. In November 2006, Bright was voted one of the CFL's Top 50 players (No. 19) of the league's modern era by Canadian sports network TSN.
Post-football career and death
Bright earned a Bachelor of Science degree in education at Drake University in 1952, becoming a teacher, coach, and school administrator, both during and after his professional football career, eventually rising to the seat of principal of D.S. Mackenzie Junior High School and Hillcrest Junior High School in Edmonton, Alberta. He was head coach at Edmonton's Bonnie Doon High School in the 1960s when the Lancers were a champion football team.
Bright died of a massive heart attack on December 14, 1983, at the University of Alberta Hospital in Edmonton, while undergoing elective surgery to correct a knee injury suffered during his football career. He was survived by his wife and four children.
Despite irrefutable evidence of the incident, Oklahoma A&M officials denied anything had happened. Indeed, Oklahoma A&M/State refused to make any further official comment on the incident for over half a century. This was the case even when Drake's former dean of men, Robert B. Kamm, became president of OSU in 1966; years later, he said that the determination to gloss over the affair was so strong that he knew he could not even discuss it. Finally, on September 28, 2005, Oklahoma State President David J. Schmidly wrote a letter to Drake President David Maxwell formally apologizing for the incident, calling it "an ugly mark on Oklahoma State University and college football." The apology came twenty-two years after Bright's death.
In September 2010, Johnny Bright School, a kindergarten through grade 9 school, was named in Bright's honour, and opened in the Rutherford neighbourhood of Edmonton. The school was officially opened on September 15 by representatives of the school district and Alberta Education Minister Dave Hancock, and included tributes from Bright's family, several dignitaries, and former colleagues of Bright from his both his athletic and educational careers.
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- "TSN Top 50 CFL Players". TSN.ca. 2006-11-28. Retrieved 2007-04-28.
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- "Johnny Bright, A Star of Football in 1950's". The New York Times. 1983-12-16. Retrieved 2011-04-25.
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- Witosky, Tom (2006-02-23). "Drake will name field for Bright: Oklahoma State has apologized for a 1951 incident that injured the football player". Des Moines Register. Retrieved 2006-08-12.[permanent dead link]
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