Johnny Bright was one of the greatest football players in American history.
As an Indiana teenager in the 1940s, he was the state’s best high school athlete, starring in six sports. He was fast and elusive, and he could jump so high that he could touch a basketball rim with his elbow — despite being only 5’10”.
He was also black, which was a problem.
No college in Indiana would recruit him. Notre Dame was still white only. Indiana University’s football coach was quoted as saying his team “already had enough black running backs.” So he ended up going to the only school that would have him: Drake University in distant Des Moines.
He was, true to form, a star. Drake (which, while a small school, played in college football’s top division back then) had never seen anything like him. In his first season, he led the nation in total offense. In his second, he set a new NCAA record for total offense, including 1,232 yards rushing and 1,168 yards passing. Drake started running a special spread offense called the “burp” designed just for him: the BRP stood for “Bright, run or pass.”
Before his senior year, he was a favorite to be the first black player to win the Heisman Trophy. And halfway through the season, again leading the nation in total offense, he was meeting expectations.
On October 20, 1951, Johnny Bright and Drake travelled south to Stillwater to play Oklahoma A&M (now Oklahoma State). A&M and Drake were rivals in the Missouri Valley Conference at the time; the MVC was one of the last conferences outside the Deep South to integrate its athletic teams, largely because the whites who ran Oklahoma A&M objected.
Bright didn’t get much of a welcome. A&M offered dorm rooms to house all of Drake’s players — except Bright. A headline in the Stillwater newspaper read “Bright is a marked man,” and the reference wasn’t just to his football skill. The buzz was that Johnny Bright would not be standing by game’s end.
On Drake’s first play from scrimmage, Bright took the snap and handed off to a teammate, who ran around left end. Bright, like all smart quarterbacks when the play is moving ahead without them, slowly jogged out of the way, about five yards behind the play.
Bright probably didn’t see lineman Wilbanks Smith sweeping around the right side of the offensive line. By common football strategy, Smith should have been following the ball carrier. Instead, he ran up to Johnny Bright, cocked his right arm, jumped into the air, and slammed his fist into Bright’s jaw.
These were the days before face masks on football helmets, and Smith was not a small man. Bright’s jaw shattered instantly.
He slumped to the ground in agony. Somehow, after a few minutes, he stood up and, on the next play, threw a touchdown pass. But a few plays later, another A&M player came at him with another dirty hit, and Johnny Bright was done. His jaw had to be wired shut for the train ride back to Des Moines; one of his teeth had to be pulled so he could be fed through a straw.
J.B. Whitworth, the A&M coach, initially denied there had been a dirty hit at all, claiming that Bright’s injury had come in the course of normal play. But thankfully, two photographers from the Des Moines Register, having heard rumors of the threats against Bright, were in attendance that day and took a series of photos proving Smith’s premeditation. The photos made the cover of Life Magazine and created national scandal, forcing Whitworth to finally claim he was “ashamed” for what had happened — despite rumors that Whitworth had ordered his players to attack Bright. (The photos went on to win the Pulitzer Prize.)
The incident had repercussions. Drake ended up leaving the conference and dropped its aspirations of being a national football power. The NCAA instituted new rules requiring facemasks and requiring any player throwing punches in a game to be ejected.
Bright recovered to play one more game that season, rushing for 204 yards. But his Heisman hopes were dashed. The Philadelphia Eagles still had enough faith in Bright’s abilities to make him their No. 1 draft pick. But the Eagles had never had a black player and Bright wasn’t interested in being their first. “I didn’t know what kind of treatment I could expect,” he said years later.
So he moved to Canada, thinking he’d get better treatment playing in the Canadian Football League. He went on to become the greatest running back in CFL history — 10,909 yards rushing, three Grey Cup titles, a Most Outstanding Player award, the single-season rushing record, and a still-standing record for most consecutive games played.
CFL players didn’t make enough money to make ends meet, so he got a side job as a teacher. When his football career ended, he became a junior high principal in Edmonton, coaching the neighborhood high school to provincial championships on the side. He died of a heart attack in 1983. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame the next year.
Why am I typing out this story? While Johnny Bright isn’t well known, it’s not like the story is new. Here’s why: While doing some online research on Bright, I came across this web page. Seems that Wilbanks Smith’s high school class had its 50-year reunion a while back and asked the alums to write up their last half century for each other to read. Here’s how Wilbanks sums up his life:
“WILBANKS SMITH, Kingwood, TX. I am retired from Exxon Industrial Marketing. My spouse is a watercolorist (emphasis on birds). We have two children, Douglas A. and Laurel Smith Tiffin and one grandson, Nicholaus Smith.
“I am interested in playing piano duets, civilization II duels (computer), raquetball games with grandson, Nick, bird watching and flower looking with Joanne, and my favorite sport is cooking and eating with family and friends. Also I have spent many years of unsuccessful attempts to grow black walnut trees in Cleburne County, Arkansas. Our most recent is the completion of a house near the trout hatchery, even I should be able to catch a trout now.”
Elsewhere on the site, we learn Wilbanks was class vice president at Mangum High, that he was in the school play (“Charley’s Aunt,” directed by Mrs. Alexander and Miss Hoover), and that he missed graduation with a bad case of the mumps.
There’s even a picture of Wilbanks from what must be his senior yearbook. He’s got on a jaunty bow tie and has the broad shoulders you’d expect. Even has a goofy grin.
There’s something disorienting about that web page. I suppose I wouldn’t expect Smith to talk about Johnny Bright in his lifetime reunion recap — we all edit out the bumps in our life stories. But his life seems so normal. There’s nothing about torturing puppies as a boy, or joining the Klan after college. Hell, he plays Civ II. Is his normalcy comforting, in that it implies that what he did to Johnny Bright was an aberration? Or is it frightening that someone at first glance so average can, at any given moment, do something so horrible?
I grew up in Louisiana while David Duke was busy almost being elected governor. So I’ve always been a pessimist when it comes to the racial attitudes of most Americans — I always fear that if you scratch the surface of many folks’ commitment to equal rights, you won’t want to see the anger and vitriol underneath. But maybe it’s just as disarming to scratch the surface of a famously violent racist and see something so unremarkable as a love of trout fishing and racquetball.
When the Des Moines Register published its photos of the attack back in 1951, sports editor Sec Taylor wrote an angry column saying Smith’s jersey should be retired, fumigated, and displayed somewhere as a symbol of “things college football does not stand for.” But nowhere in the piece did Taylor mention Wilbanks Smith by name. He simply referred to him by his jersey number. In the caption under a photo of Smith, all the paper said was “Number 72.”
“I won’t sully our clean journal by the use of his name,” Taylor wrote.
Maybe that’s the right approach: celebrate the hero, keep the villain obscure and abstract.
Footnote: I cribbed much of the Johnny Bright story from these four sites.
Footnote: For some reason, this web site about Smith’s hometown of Mangum brags about him like a favorite son: “His actions were, presumably, directed by the coaching staff, but Wilbanks Smith courageously accepted full responsibility. After graduation, he embarked upon a successful career in engineering and community service.” So breaking a man’s jaw because he’s black is fine, assuming you take responsibility for it. Glad to clear that up.
Johnny Bright was one of the greatest football players in American history.