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The attack on Johnny Bright and his legacy

Johnny Bright, considered the best football player in Drake University history, had an illustrious career on the football field. However, he is often remembered for being the victim of an on-field racially motivated attack by an Oklahoma A&M (now Oklahoma State) player on Oct. 20, 1951. 

Although it has been 70 years since this incident, the ramifications and legacy of this assault can be seen to this day in college football.

Bright was one of the first dual-threat quarterbacks in college history. He also was the first African-American Heisman Trophy frontrunner in 1951, ten years before Syracuse running back Ernie Davis became the first African-American to win the Heisman. Drake came into Stillwater, Oklahoma with the senior Bright leading the nation in total offense, total scoring and rushing yards during the 1951 season. This was nothing new for Bright as in the two previous seasons he led the NCAA in total offense and in the 1950 season he set a then-record with 2,400 yards with 266.7 yards per game, a NCAA record.

With Bright at the helm the team was off to a 5-0 start and a chance to win the conference title with a win. However all of this would unravel after the team’s trip down south. 

Before the game the campus newspaper the Daily O’Collegian, and a local newspaper, the News Press,​​ reported rumors that then coach of the Aggies, Jennings Bryan Whitworth, encouraged his players to go after Bright and players had talked about knocking him out. 

Within the first seven minutes of the game Bright was knocked unconscious three times by Oklahoma A&M players, which nowadays is unfathomable as that player would’ve been benched and undergone concussion protocols after the first hit. And the opposing players would have been ….(penalized)

A&M defensive lineman Wilbanks Smith landed the last hit on Bright. Bright handed the ball off to fullback Gene Macomber who ran to the left. Not involved in the play whatsoever, Bright is seen standing there before Smith runs through the line untouched and smashes his forearm and elbow straight into Bright’s face. Bright’s lower jaw was broken.

Despite this Bright tried to persevere through the injury and later tossed a 61-yard touchdown pass, but he wasn’t able to finish the game. He finished for the first time in his career under 100 yards and Drake lost 27-14. Bright was only able to play in one more game and finished fifth in Heisman voting, though he was voted first-team All-American and won the Nils V. “Swede” Nelson Sportsmanship Award.

A sequence of six photos from this attack by Des Moines Register photographers, John Robinson and Don Ultang, were splashed across newspapers and they subsequently won the 1952 Pulitzer Prize for photography.

This brutal attack on Bright was one of the most blatant instances of racism within sports that Americans saw and highlighted the discriminatoin that Black athletes faced. The photos were also a precursor to the harm that would come to Blacks athletes and non-athletes during the Civil Rights Movements and the struggle against racism.

 Neither Smith, Whitworth or A&M faced any punishment from the NCAA after the incident. Smith did apologize to Bright, but even up until a 2012 interview by Kyle Fredrickson for the O’Colly Media Group he reiterated that he was not racially motivated in his attack of Bright. In 2005 Oklahoma State formally apologized. 

There’s no way it couldn’t have been racially motivated,” Bright told the Des Moines Register in 1980. “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.”

Public outcry and anger followed the attack, so much so that Drake withdrew from the Missouri Valley Conference because A&M would not punish Smith. Other sports came back into the conference five years later, but football didn’t return until 1971.

In 1952 the NCAA implemented new rules and regulations. Helmets were required to have facemasks on them, which wasn’t the case during the previous year when  it was optional, and if a player hit another with a forearm, elbow or locked hand or unsportsmanlike conduct a player would receive 15 yards and a mandatory suspension instead of just 15 yards.

Bright went on to be drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles in 1952 with the No. 1 pick, but decided to play for the Canadian Football League as it was more racially tolerant. He led the Edmonton Eskimos to successive Grey Cup titles in 1954, 1955 and 1956. In 1959 he won the CFL’s Most Outstanding Player award and was inducted into the CFL and College Football Halls of Fame. Bright is the only football player that Drake has retired a jersey number for, No. 43. In 2006 Drake named the football field at Drake Stadium the Johnny Bright Field. The John Dee Bright College at Drake, which is a two year college, is named after him as well.

Naming Bright College in Johnny’s honor pays tribute to his personal and professional qualities—the very qualities Bright College will instill in its learners: grit, resilience, dedication, drive, and civic and professional engagement,” said Drake University President Marty Martin in an article for Drake Athletics. 

Bright retired from football in 1961 and became a beloved teacher and coach in Canada. In 1983, at the age of 53, Bright passed away after suffering from a heart attack during a knee surgery.

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