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Johnny Bright was an African American football player who played at college level for Drake University. Back in the day, Bright was deployed as a halfback/quarterback in almost all games. In a game against Oklahoma A&M College (now known as the Oklahoma state university), Bright was viciously attacked by a white player from the opposing side, Wilbanks Smith. The assault, occurring in the middle of the field of play, was what later became sensationally known as the Johnny Bright incident.
The Lead Up
The 1951 game between Drake and Oklahoma featured plenty of controversy, and it all started long before the actual meeting between the two sides took place. Bright was well-known in college football circles, having been the first African American player to make his bow at the Lewis field two years prior to this incident. He was known for his great vision and the ability to draw defenses into making mistakes, opening up space for his team mates.
It was common knowledge that most of those in the A&M squad had hard feelings for Bright, and college press had some squad members saying that the player ‘would not be around at the end of the game’. During practice in the build-up to the game, it was reported that the A&M coach would occasionally shout to his defense to ‘get that nigger’. This was a hypothetical reference to the members of squad that would be fielded to try out plays meant to help them in tackling Bright.
On October, 20, 1951, the two teams ran out to face each other amid tensions and swirling rumors that Johnny Bright was a marked man. In a bizarre first seven minutes of the match, Bright found himself on the ground three times courtesy of tackles by A&M’s Wilbanks. In each of these three attacks, the player would become unconscious, come to and resume play. It was however the last blow that was the most devastating because it snapped Bright’s jaw. He did manage to complete a pass moments after the last incident but was forced to exit the field due to the pain he experienced afterwards.
No punishment was meted out to Smith in the course of the game, and Drake University went on to lose at 14-27. In total, Bright went out of the game having not hit the 100-yard mark, which was the very first time in his career that this had happened.
When the game was over, Bob Spiegel, a reporter from the Des Moines Register, interviewed a number of spectators and students. It appeared that the move on Bright had been rigorously practiced in training prior to the game. A&M players simply wanted to put the player out of the game, and the blows were well planned beforehand. According to Spiegel, a businessman who was part of the spectating audience distinctly heard a squad player from Oklahoma say that they were ‘gonna take that nigger out’. When Wilbanks landed the first blow, the player turned around and told the businessman that Wilbanks had actually given him an identical blow in practice, further solidifying what everyone else already knew.
After the Incident
The Johnny Bright incident did not drop out of the public glare. Cameramen from the Des Moines Register captured a series of images, and the photos taken clearly showed that bright did not have the ball in his possession at the time Wilbanks landed the last blow. These distinct images would later go on to win a Pulitzer Prize. A&M denied anything to do with the attack and remained defiant for over 50 years. The Missouri Valley Conference refused to investigate or punish Wilbanks, and Drake pulled out of the conference in protest. In a show of support, Bradley University also opted out.
Johnny Bright reportedly harbored no ill feelings towards A&M or any of its players. Graduating in 1952, he joined the Canadian Football League and played for the next 12 years. At the time of his retirement, he was the top rusher in the Canadian league. He died in 1983.
In 2005, Oklahoma State University finally owned up to the actions of its players and issued a formal apology to Drake. The incident was a turning point in the history of NCAA as it brought about calls for stricter rules and the use of protective gear in the sport.