By DANIEL P. FINNEY | Copyright The Des Moines Register
Oct. 24, 2019
Seven minutes. Four blows. Six pictures. One broken jaw. And the Saturday that changed college football forever. It happened Oct. 20, 1951, in Stillwater, Oklahoma.
Drake University’s senior star back, Johnny Bright, came to Stillwater leading the nation in total offense, as he had done the previous two seasons. As a sophomore in 1949, he became the first African American player to play at A&M’s stadium. On this October day, he was a front-runner for the Heisman Trophy.
The Oklahoma A&M Aggies, later renamed the Oklahoma State Cowboys, held Bright in contempt. They were determined to keep the fleet-footed Bright — a power runner who was also the Bulldog’s best passer — from running all over the Aggies at home.
The Aggies’ defense targeted him.
Hits knocked him unconscious three times in the first seven minutes of play. In today’s game, Bright would’ve been sidelined in a tent behind the team bench undergoing concussion protocols after the first hit.
But this was 1951. Helmets didn’t even have face masks.
Bright took a snap and handed off to fullback Gene Macomber. The play moved away from Bright.
A&M defensive lineman Wilbanks Smith, however, ignored the ball and zeroed in on Bright.
Smith’s forearm and elbow slammed into Bright’s face. Bright later said he heard a pop right away. His lower jaw was broken.
Bright refused to bow. A few plays later, he tossed a 61-yard touchdown pass. But the injury eventually forced him to leave the game. A&M won 27-14.
Bright finished with 75 total yards — 14 rushing and 61 passing. It was the first time in his collegiate career he finished with fewer than 100 yards.
The true injustice that had occurred that day, though, was not fully understood until Sunday morning, when the Des Moines Register landed on doorsteps across Iowa.
Television was in its infancy. Few games were broadcast, and there certainly were no instant replays from multiple angles. Des Moines radio stations picked up the A&M feed, whose announcers apparently noticed nothing unusual with the play.
“I was listening to the game on the radio and heard Johnny had to leave hurt,” recalled Bob Clark, a Roosevelt High School grade who attended Drake on a track scholarship and played football with Bright in 1949 and 1950. “That was unusual, because Johnny never wanted to come out of a game. But I didn’t think anything of it.”
Bright’s jaw was broken, but many sports fans found theirs hanging open when the Sunday Register’s sports section showed the world the play in vivid detail.
A series of six photographs taken by Register photographers Don Ultang and John Robinson showed A&M’s Smith punching Bright in the mouth, without regard to the direction of play.
There it was, in a series of six photos exposed: a blatant assault on one of college football’s greatest players.
The moment became known as the “Johnny Bright Incident.”
Bright grew up in a hardscrabble neighborhood on Hayden Street in Fort Wayne, Indiana, one of five sons to a single mother.
He was known for his genial, hard-working nature. He shoveled snow to make pocket change, but his athletic prowess made him a standout in the community.
Bright was an ace fast-pitch softball player for local club teams. At Central High School, Bright became a basketball star who twice led his team to semifinal appearances in the famed Indiana state tournaments.
He led Central to the city football title in 1945 and competed in five separate track and field events.
Yet despite his accomplishments, no Indiana school showed interest in him. Notre Dame did not allow black players.
Purdue showed no interest. Indiana University coaches reportedly said the team “already had enough black running backs,” per a posthumous profile of Bright in the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel.
Bright accepted a football scholarship to Michigan State, but an Indiana connection steered him toward Drake.
Nick Brenner, a Drake track coach from Indiana, kept tabs on the athletes in his home state. He wooed Bright to Drake on a track scholarship on the condition he could try out for football and basketball.
Bright earned a varsity letter in both track and basketball his sophomore year. He pole-vaulted 13 feet and landed a high jump of 6 feet, 2 inches.
Drake football coach Warren Gaer utilized Bright’s athleticism to the fullest on the gridiron.
Bright grew from a 5-10, 180-pound high-schooler into a muscular 6-foot, 215-pound man by his sophomore year at Drake.
“Johnny was the kind of runner who would just run right through a defender,” Clark, his old teammate, said. “He could do anything he wanted.”
Bright threw sidearm, but he hit his targets. His sophomore year, he ran for 975 yards and passed for another 975 to lead the nation in total offense.
Bright dropped track and basketball to focus on football. He repeated as total offense national leader again his junior year, running for 1,232 yards and throwing for 1,168 more.
Drake was 5-0 when the Bulldogs played in Stillwater on Oct. 20, 1951. Bright was again leading the country in total offense. But a conspiracy was brewing.
Macomber, the Drake fullback, stopped for a haircut in Stillwater before the game.
The chatter was that Bright shouldn’t expect to finish the game, Macomber said in a 1999 TNT documentary about the photographs taken by Ultang and Robinson.
The A&M student newspaper, the Daily O’Collegian, and the local newspaper, the News Press, both reported similar items that Bright would be targeted.
Ultang and Robinson heard the targeting talk, too. They set up their cameras atop the press box at Lewis Field, now T. Boone Pickens Stadium.
They almost didn’t catch the pivotal moment.
In those days, film needed to be developed, and there was no way to transmit them back to Des Moines.
Bright left the game, and Ultang and Robinson hustled to the airport to catch a plane back to Des Moines.
When they developed their film, Ultang alerted the editors.
The pictures, which eventually won a Pulitzer Prize, went atop the front page of the sports section showed a clear sucker-punch.
And even in the age before the instant outrage fueled by social media, the anger was powerful.
Newspapers across the country decried the assault as poor sportsmanship, along with strong racial overtones.
Readers filled the letters to the editor column. The Des Moines Tribune, the now-defunct afternoon paper, ran excerpts from editorials across the country condemning the play and calling out racism.
Register sports editor Sec Taylor suggested A&M retired Smith’s No. 72 “so that no other (A&M) athletes will be contaminated by the muckerism it represents. The jersey bearing the number should be fumigated.”
Some editorials called for the expulsion of Smith, who hit Bright, and the dismissal of the A&M coach, J.B. Whitworth, who was widely believed to have ordered the hit on Bright.
But no punishments were levied against A&M by the NCAA, the Missouri Valley Conference or internally by the institution.
Whitworth issued a written apology to Bright but denied ordering the illegal hit or any racial motivation.
Smith denied any racial motivation as recently as 2012 in a story by Kyle Fredrickson for O’Colly Media Group.
Drake officials were furious. The school withdrew from the MVC. Bradley followed suit, though both schools would later rejoin. Drake would not play football in the MVC again until 1971.
The next season, the NCAA instituted stricter rules regarding illegal blocking and required helmets with face guards, the beginning of a long journey with player safety in both college and pro football that continues to this day.
None of this helped Bright in 1951. His jaw was wired shut. Doctors removed a tooth so he could be fed by tube while his mandible healed.
He played only sparingly the remainder of the season.
The Chicago Bears commissioned two versions of a special helmet to better protect Bright’s broken jaw, but neither worked.
Bright finished fifth in the Heisman Trophy voting.
For Bright, there was no debate that racism cost him.
“There’s no way it couldn’t have been racially motivated,” Bright told the 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.”
The NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles drafted Bright with their first-round pick in 1952. But Gaer, the Drake coach, advised Bright that the money they were offering seemed low.
Gaer reportedly told Bright the Eagles offered him less money than they would a white player with similar skills, per the biography “Johnny Bright, Champion: A Mentor, Scholar and Educator,” by Warrick Lee Barrett.
Bright would later say he was wary of being the first African-American player for the Eagles.
“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,” Bright said.
Bright chose to play in Canada, signing first with the Calgary Stampeders as a linebacker and tailback. A nagging shoulder issue and contract issues led to Bright being dealt to the Edmonton Eskimos.
Bright became one of the greatest stars in CFL history. He led the Eskimos to three consecutive Grey Cup titles from 1954 through 1956.
Bright retired from football in 1961 and became a decorated teacher and coach in Edmonton. He became a Canadian citizen in 1962.
He married his sweetheart from Fort Wayne, and the couple raised a son and three daughters.
Bright so rarely discussed the incident that bears his name that his oldest daughter, Deaine, didn’t learn about it until someone gave her a book with the Pulitzer Prize-winning photos.
In 1983, Bright underwent surgery to correct a knee problem from his football days. He suffered a fatal heart attack during the operation. He was 53.
In 2005, a Drake basketball booster called David Maxwell, then Drake’s president. The Bulldogs were scheduled to play in a tournament where it was possible Drake could play Oklahoma State.
The booster thought they shouldn’t play the Cowboys unless the ugliness of the Johnny Bright incident was resolved.
Maxwell agreed. He called Oklahoma State President David Schmidly.
“I told him we could do this very quietly and I wasn’t looking for publicity, but I thought it was something we should resolve,” Maxwell recalled in a recent interview.
Schmidly was agreeable and wrote a Maxwell a letter formally apologizing for the assault, calling it “an ugly mark on Oklahoma State University and college football.”
The letter came 22 years after Bright’s death and 54 years after his jaw was broken, taking him out of the running for the Heisman.
In 2006, Drake officials named the field at the newly remodeled Drake Stadium in honor of Johnny Bright.
It’s tempting to see the story of Johnny Bright as a series of “what ifs.” What if he’d won the Heisman? What if he’d played in the NFL?
But Bright never spoke of it that way. He told the Register in 1970s that he was grateful his broken jaw led to a safer game.
His focus in later life was his students.
In 1982, a year before his death, Bright spoke to the Edmonton Chamber of Commerce. His topic was not the glory days of football, but the importance of education to communities. He emphasized the need for trust between students and teachers in order to achieve greatness.
“My personal goal has always been to be a champion,” Bright said. “We are all students and we are all teachers when we thirst for knowledge. … I want my kids to say our school is the best. More important, I want them to say, ‘I am the best.’ I want each of my kids to have self-respect.
“I want them to be champions.”
Register Storyteller Daniel P. Finney grew up in Winterset and east Des Moines. He wrote his first story for the Register in 1993 at age 17. He has stacked paragraphs ever since. Reach him at 515-284-8144 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @newsmanone or Facebook at @danielpfinney.