CONTACT: Drake SID Mike Mahon, 515-271-3014, email@example.com
Drake Athletic Historian Paul Morrison, 515-271-3816
Kandis Bright and Deanie Bright-Johnson, 515-245-5500
Shortly before the kick-off at Saturday’s homecoming game against Morehead State, Drake University will dedicate its football field in honor of the University’s greatest athlete of all time — Johnny Bright, who later became a celebrated Canadian football player. The ceremony, which will include members of Bright’s family, will start at 12:30 p.m. in the newly renovated Drake Stadium.
At Drake, Bright brought power and glitz to the Bulldog football backfield in the late 1940s and early ’50s. He ran with strength and grace and threw passes with speed and accuracy. In his sophomore year (1949), he won the national collegiate total offense crown and in 1950 he set the best single season total offense mark in the nation with 2,400 yards.
A cruel play in Stillwater, Okla., robbed Bright of a certain Heisman Trophy in 1951. Bright was the first African-American football player to play in Stillwater, and Oklahoma A&M College (now Oklahoma State University) did not take kindly to his dominance. On an early Drake offensive play in the game, an Oklahoma A&M lineman charged Bright — who did not have the ball — and hit him in the face, breaking Bright’s jaw.
He recovered enough to play — with a wired jaw and makeshift face mask – in the last game of his senior season, rushing for 204 yards to finish with more than 6,000 yards in total offense for his college career. He averaged 236 yards per game and scored 284 points in 25 games. His hopes for winning the Heisman Trophy, though, had been dashed.
A series of photographs taken by Des Moines Register photographers Don Ultang and John Robinson showed the brutality of the play and the obvious racism involved. The photo sequence won a Pulitzer Prize and was also reprinted in Life magazine. The photos also were featured in a 1999 documentary on TNT titled “Moment of Impact: Stories of the Pulitzer Prize Photographs.”
Because of this incident and because the Missouri Valley Conference refused to take any action, Drake withdrew from the conference for several years before resuming conference membership in 1955.
After graduating from Drake, Bright became one of the best players in the history of the Canadian Football League, playing for the Calgary Stampeders for two seasons, then moving to the Edmonton Eskimos. With Edmonton, he led the Western conference in rushing four times and was all-conference six times. He also helped the Eskimos to Grey Cup titles in 1954, 1955 and 1956. In 1958, he rushed for 1,722 yards, then a CFL single-season record. The next year he won the Schenley Award as the CFL’s Most Outstanding Player, the first black athlete to be so honored.
In approving the name of the playing field in the renovated Drake Stadium, the Drake Board of Trustees affirmed that “Johnny Bright was an immensely gifted athlete who gave his heart, and his body, to Drake University. As an alumnus of Drake, he went on to a distinguished career as a football player in Canada, and — perhaps more important —as a gifted and highly successful teacher and school administrator who had a positive impact on the lives of thousands of young people.”
Bright’s daughters, Kandis Bright and Deanie Bright-Johnson, Deanie’s husband, Cecil, and their daughters, Maura and Brea Johnson, will participate in the dedication.
Bright, who finished fifth in balloting for the 1951 Heisman Trophy, is the only Drake player inducted into the National Football Foundation College Football Hall of Fame.
He also starred in basketball and track for Drake. He earned a bachelor’s degree in education from Drake in 1952. Following his successful career in the Canadian Football League, he won accolades for his work as a junior high school principal and his service to youth. He died of a heart attack in 1983 at the age of 53.
To view the Pulitzer Prize-winning photos, listen to accounts of the Drake-Oklahoma A&M game and learn more about Bright, visit the Drake Heritage Collection at http://www.lib.drake.edu/heritage/bright/story/index.php.