Canadian Football League

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Former Canadian Football League great has field named after him

When Johnny Bright played football at Drake University from 1949 to 1951, his amazing accomplishments seemed likely to last forever. Now the school is making sure they will never be forgotten.

On Saturday, the school will name its football field after the Fort Wayne Central High School star who became a national hero.

The field’s new scoreboard went up last spring with the name “Johnny Bright Field,” but the official dedication will come during the homecoming game against Morehead State.

When Bright attended Central, he led the football team to a city title in 1945 and the basketball team to a pair of state tournament Final Four appearances. He was also a one-man track team, often winning as many as five events during a meet, including clearing 12 feet in the pole vault using a bamboo pole.

Bright took a scholarship at Drake University, located in Des Moines, Iowa, to run track, with the condition that he could try out for the football and basketball teams. After sitting out the mandatory year of freshman ineligibility, Bright tried out for the football team and made the squad after two days. A few days after that, he became the focus of the offense.

“He lettered in three sports as a sophomore – track, basketball and football, and then decided to concentrate on football,” longtime Drake sports information director Paul Morrison said in 1999. “He was a great athlete really, just a natural athlete. He could be good in any sport he wanted to participate in.”

As a sophomore, Bright rushed for 975 yards and threw for 975 yards to lead the nation in total offense as the Bulldogs went 6-2-1. He followed that with 1,232 yards rushing and 1,168 yards passing as a junior to set an NCAA record for total offense. The next season he was leading the nation in rushing and total offense with 821 and 1,349 yards, respectively — and was possibly on his way to the Heisman Trophy — when the Bulldogs played at Oklahoma A&M on Oct. 20, 1951.

As a sophomore in 1949, Bright had become the first African-American player to play at Stillwater, but this game would be much rougher. After taking two late hits early in the game, Bright was well away from the play when he was blasted by Aggies defensive lineman Wilbanks Smith, who hit Bright so hard he was lifted off his feet. Despite suffering a broken jaw, Bright picked himself off the turf and came back the next play to throw a touchdown pass, but another hit knocked him out of the game a few plays later.

Immediately after the game, Drake officials accused Oklahoma A&M of dirty play and being out to “get” Bright, but the Oklahoma A&M president said he saw nothing unusual with the play. Photos from the game by John Robinson and Don Ultang of the Des Moines Register showed the severity and won a Pulitzer Prize.

Bright came back to play one more game two weeks later, rushing for 204 yards against Great Lakes Naval Station, to finish with more than 6,000 yards in career total offense. He averaged 236 yards per game and scored 384 points in 25 games. As a senior he earned 70 percent of the yards Drake gained and scored 70 percent of the Bulldogs’ points — despite missing three games. He finished fifth in the Heisman voting.

But the incident scarred Bright and Drake. When the Missouri Valley Conference took no action against Oklahoma A&M, Drake eventually left the league. Though the Philadelphia Eagles drafted Bright with their first pick in 1951, he was wary of playing in the NFL.

“I would have been their first Negro player, but 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 later.

Instead, Bright became an all-star in the Canadian Football League, where he sparked a dynasty in Edmonton as the Eskimos won Grey Cup titles in 1954, 1955 and 1956. Bright’s football career ended in 1964 after he gained 10,909 yards rushing in 13 seasons. He played in an amazing 197 consecutive games as both a linebacker and a fullback and was inducted into the CFL Hall of Fame in 1970 and the College Football Hall of Fame in 1984.

Bright became an often-honored teacher in Edmonton and eventually the principal of D.S. MacKenzie Junior High School, where he received numerous honors. He died of a heart attack in 1983 at age 53 while undergoing knee surgery.

The story with the Oklahoma A&M incident wasn’t completed until recently. After being asked about the situation by an alumnus, Drake President David Maxwell called Oklahoma State President David J. Schmidly to discuss the matter.

“This was still an open issue,” Maxwell said in an official release. “I felt that in honor of Johnny’s legacy as a member of the Drake University family that we needed to bring closure to the event.”

Schmidly then issued a letter of apology. “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,” Schmidly said in the letter.

Maxwell responded by writing, “I want to express my profound thanks for your thoughtfulness and sensitivity regarding the Johnny Bright incident of 1951, and for sharing our desire to bring the issue to formal closure.”

During a 1980 Des Moines Register interview, Bright said, “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.”

Now both schools have appropriately buried the issue, and Bright can be remembered for his positive accomplishments on and off the field.

Saturday, one of those fields will bear his name.


Who is Johnny Bright?

1930: Born June 11 in Fort Wayne.

1945: Led Central High School to city football title.

1946: Led Central to the Indiana High School basketball state championship game.

1948: Graduated from Central High School.

1950: Became first college player to rush for and throw for over 1,000 yards in a season.

1951: Finished fifth in Heisman Trophy balloting, named first-team all-American.

1952: Graduated from Drake with an education degree.

1952: NFL first-round draft pick (Philadelphia Eagles).

1962: Became a Canadian citizen.

1964: Retired from Canadian Football League.

1969: Named Drake’s all-time greatest football player.

1970: Inducted into Canadian Football Hall of Fame on Nov. 26.

1973: Became first black school administrator in Western Canada.

1983: Died Dec. 14; buried in Edmonton.

1984: Inducted into College Football Hall of Fame.

2003: Inducted March 8 into Missouri Valley Hall of Fame.

2006: Drake University football field will be named in his honor Saturday.

Notable: Bright was all-state in football, track and basketball at Central. He played at Drake from 1949 to 1951 and in three years accounted for 5,903 yards in total offense, averaging better than 236 yards per game and scoring 384 points in 25 games. He led the nation in total offense in 1949 and 1950. He started with Calgary of the Canadian Football League in 1952, moved to the Edmonton Eskimos in 1954 and played through 1964. When he retired, he held the Canadian league record for career yards rushing with 10,768 (currently ranks third).

♦Won Grey Cups in 1954, 1955 and 1956.

♦Rushed for 1,722 yards in 1958.

♦Was the first African-

American player named the CFL’s best player in 1959.

After ending his playing career, Bright received several major teaching awards and developed his own system of teaching before becoming a middle school principal. The John Bright Memorial Awards are handed out annually in Edmonton to top students. He was also an outstanding coach who led basketball and football teams to city and provincial titles.



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