Johnny Bright Incident
The Johnny Bright Incident was a violent on-field assault against African American player Johnny Bright by White American player Wilbanks Smith during an American college football game held on October 20, 1951 in Stillwater, Oklahoma. The game was significant in itself as it marked the first time that an African American athlete with a national profile and of critical importance to the success of his Drake University team had played against Oklahoma A&M (now Oklahoma State University) on their home field. Bright's injury also highlighted the racial tensions of the times and assumed notoriety when it was captured in what was later to become both a widely disseminated and eventually Pulitzer Prize winning photo sequence. The event later came to be known as the "Johnny Bright Incident".
Johnny Bright's participation as a halfback/quarterback in the collegiate football game between the Drake Bulldogs and Oklahoma A&M Aggies on October 20, 1951 at Lewis Field was controversial even before it began. Bright had been the first African American football player to play at Lewis Field two years prior (without incident). In 1951, Bright was a pre-season Heisman Trophy candidate from Drake, and led the nation in total offense. Bright had never played for a losing team in his college career. Coming into the contest, Drake carried a five-game winning streak, owing much to Bright's rushing and passing abilities.
During the first seven minutes of the game, Bright was knocked unconscious three times by blows from Oklahoma A&M defensive tackle Wilbanks Smith. While Smith's final elbow blow broke Bright's jaw, he was still able to complete a 61-yard touchdown pass to Drake halfback Jim Pilkington a few plays later. Soon afterward, the injury finally forced him to leave the game. Bright finished the game with less than 100 yards, the first time in his three-year collegiate career at Drake. Oklahoma A&M eventually won 27–14.
Bob Spiegel, a reporter with the Des Moines Register, interviewed several spectators after the game, eventually publishing a report on the incident in the October 30, 1951 issue of the newspaper. According to Spiegel's report, several of the Oklahoma A&M students he interviewed overheard an Oklahoma A&M coach repeatedly say "Get that nigger" whenever the A&M practice squad ran Drake plays against the Oklahoma A&M starting defense, prior to the October 20 game. Spiegel also recounted the experiences of a businessman and his wife, who were seated behind a group of Oklahoma A&M practice squad players. At the beginning of the game, one of the players turned around said, "We're gonna get that nigger." After the first blow to Bright was delivered by Smith, the same player again turned around and told the businessman, "See that knot on my jaw? That same guy [Smith] gave me that the very same way in practice."
A six photograph sequence of the incident captured by Des Moines Register cameramen John Robinson and Don Ultang clearly showed Smith's jaw-breaking blow was thrown well after Bright had handed the ball off to Drake fullback Gene Macomber, and was well behind the play. The sequence won Robinson and Ultang the 1952 Pulitzer Prize for Photography, and eventually made the cover of Life Magazine.
Drake University and fellow Missouri Valley Conference member Bradley University withdrew from the Conference in protest for several years, not only in response to the Bright incident, but also because both Oklahoma A&M and the Conference refused to take any disciplinary action against Wilbanks Smith. The "Johnny Bright Incident", as it became widely known, eventually provoked changes in NCAA football rules regarding illegal blocking, and mandated the use of more protective helmets with face guards.
Bright's broken jaw limited his effectiveness for the remainder of his senior season at Drake, but he earned 70 percent of the yards Drake gained and scored 70 percent of the Bulldogs' points, despite missing the better part of the final three games of the season. Bright finished fifth in the balloting for the 1951 Heisman Trophy, and played in the post-season East-West Shrine Game and the Hula Bowl.
Following his 1952 graduation from Drake, Bright went on to enjoy a 12-year professional football career in the Canadian Football League, retiring in 1964 as the CFL's all-time leading rusher, and was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 1970.
Recalling the incident without apparent bitterness in a 1980 Des Moines Register interview three years before his death, Bright commented: "There's no way it couldn't have been racially motivated." Bright went on to add: "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."
When asked about Smith, whom he had not seen since the incident, Bright said he felt "null and void" about Smith, but added: "The thing has been a great influence on my life. My total philosophy of life now is that, whatever a person's bias and limitation, they deserve respect. Everyone's entitled to their own beliefs."
A webpage for Smith's hometown of Mangum, Oklahoma lists him as a "noted notable", praising Smith as "an outstanding football player and wrestler," while noting that "In football, he earned notoriety as the perpetrator of the 'Johnny Bright Incident.' This event, with its overtones of racism and poor sportsmanship, was the subject of the 1952 Pulitzer Prize winner in photojournalism." The city's webpage goes on to claim that Smith's "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."
On September 28, 2005, Oklahoma State University formally apologized to Drake University and to Bright for the incident in a letter from Oklahoma State University President David J. Schmidly to Drake President David Maxwell. The apology came 22 years after Bright's death.
- White, Maury (1951-10-21). "Aggies Outlast Drake, 27–14". Drake University Digital Collections (reprinted with the permission of the Des Moines Register). Retrieved 2006-08-12.
- Hanson, Dave (1980-11-13). "Bright not bitter: Blow helped clean up sports". Drake University Digital Collections (reprinted with the permission of the Des Moines Register). Retrieved 2006-08-12.
- Robinson, John; Don Ultang (1951-10-21). "Bright's Jaw Broken, Drake Streak Ends, 27-14". Drake University Digital Collections (reprinted with the permission of the Des Moines Register). Retrieved 2006-08-12.
- Moorhead, Jim (1964-10-30). "1951 John Bright incident causes Drake withdrawal from MVC". Drake University Digital Collections (reprinted with the permission of the Des Moines Register). Retrieved 2006-08-12.
- Soutar, Ted. "CFL Legend: Johnny Bright". CFL.ca. Retrieved August 12, 2006.
- "Mangum". Key To The City. Retrieved 2009-09-21.
- Witosky, Tom (2006-02-23). "Drake will name field for Bright: Oklahoma State has apologized for a 1951 incident that injured the football player". Des Moines Register.com. Retrieved 2006-08-12.
- Darcy, Bob (2005-11-14). "Schmidly closes door on Johnny Bright disgrace". Oklahoma State University The Daily O'Collegian. Retrieved 2008-03-22.[dead link]
- Drake Heritage Collection - The Johnny Bright Story
- The Johnny Bright Incident – 50 Years Forgotten by Ted Soutar
- KCCI-TV8 Des Moines, Iowa – Drake Names Football Field After Johnny Bright: OSU Apologizes For Player's Actions
- Digital file of the entire front page of newspaper with B&W photographic prints and article
- Without Rules - The Untold Story of the Johnny Bright Incident