Edmonton Eskimos

-- team --

 

Toronto

-

Montreal

-

Hamilton

-

Ottawa

-

 

Winnipeg

-

Saskatchewan

-

British Columbia

-

Edmonton

-

Calgary

-

 

 

 

U.S. Expansion

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

-- contents --

 

Grey Cup

 

 

 

 

Index

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Johnny Bright - Running Back - 1954-64 - Drake

-

History: Bright's Revenge: A brutal attack on a black American footballer led to a storied CFL career - Brian Bergman - Maclean's - 10-04-2004

Johnny Bright, a halfback at Iowa's Drake University, was the leading rusher in U.S. college football when he ran onto Lewis Field in Stillwater, Okla., on Oct. 21, 1951, to play against Oklahoma A&M. For days, rumours flew that the all-white Oklahoma squad considered Bright, who was black, a "marked man." On Drake's first offensive scrimmage, A&M end Wilbanks Smith slammed Bright in the face with his fist well behind the play, fracturing his jaw (football helmets did not yet have face masks). Bright somehow continued and, on the next play, he threw a 61-yard touchdown pass. Smith attacked again, this time with a forearm blow that sent Bright out of the game for good.


The incident might have been forgotten if two photographers, John Robinson and Don Ultang, hadn't captured it on film. Published by the Des Moines Register and Life magazine, the duo's photos earned them a Pulitzer Prize and provoked a national uproar over what the New York Times called "one of the ugliest racial incidents in college sports history." The gridiron assault also helped convince one of America's top footballers to head north for what would become a storied career in the Canadian Football League.

 

Three months after the Oklahoma outrage, the NFL Philadelphia Eagles made Bright a first-round draft choice. Had he accepted, Bright would have become the team's first black player (the National Football League's colour barrier came down just six years earlier). Instead, Bright signed with the Calgary Stampeders, making him the first top-round NFL draft pick to opt instead to play in Canada. Partly, it was about money: hard as it is to imagine now, many players then earned more in the CFL than the NFL. But Bright was also clearly rattled by his experience at Lewis Field. "There was a tremendous influx of [white] southern players into the NFL at that time," Bright later said, "and I didn't know what kind of treatment to expect."

After two injury-plagued seasons in Calgary, Bright joined the Edmonton Eskimos. He became an instant star, helping lead the team to its fabled string of Grey Cup victories in 1954, 1955 and 1956. By the time he retired in 1964, Bright had rushed for 10,909 yards -- then a CFL record that, in the intervening 40 years, has been exceeded by only two players, George Reed and Mike Pringle. Bright still remains tied with Reed for most career playoff touchdowns (19) and holds the all-time record for most yards rushed in a Grey Cup game (171, in the Eskimos' 1956 victory over the Montreal Alouettes).

After he retired, Bright remained in Edmonton where he became a highly respected teacher, junior high school principal and basketball coach. In 1983, the father of three underwent minor knee surgery. While anesthetized, Bright suffered cardiac arrest and could not be revived. He was 53. The city later renamed a football field after him, and the Edmonton Journal annually hands out Johnny Bright awards to high school athletes who embody his commitment to academics, athletics and the community.

Friends and colleagues remember Bright as a modest and private man who never discussed the ugly incident that changed the course of his career. "He wouldn't mention it at all," says Bob Dean, a place-kicker for the Eskimos in the 1950s, who remained friends with Bright until his death. Now 74, Dean says Bright and other black players who came from the U.S. around the same time indicated "they enjoyed life here because people treated them with respect." Yet, he describes Bright as a driven man. "Being black and living in a white man's world," says Dean, "John felt he had to be perfect in everything he did."

Perhaps one of the most fitting tributes to Bright came in a 1999 retrospective by Terry Hersom, sports editor of Iowa's Sioux City Journal. "He led the CFL in rushing in front of cheering Canadian throngs less encumbered by ignorant hatred that our country has still not entirely purged," wrote Hersom. "Those who know the story well have an obligation to pass it on. Those who don't will be better just for listening."

 

-- statistics --

 

 

Johnny Bright     Drake  
  Rushing      
Yr Team C Yds Avg Lg TD
1952 Cgy 144 815 5.7   2
1953 Cgy 38 128 3.4   0
1954 C/E 45 214 4.8 14 0
1955 Edm 107 653 6.1 34 2
1956 Edm 93 573 6.2 22 4
1957 Edm 259 1,679 6.5 27 16
1958 Edm 296 1,722 5.8 90 8
1959 Edm 231 1,340 5.8 53 8
1960 Edm 251 1,260 5.0 28 14
1961 Edm 236 1,350 5.7 81 11
1962 Edm 142 650 4.6 23 2
1963 Edm 83 324 3.9 15 0
1964 Edm 44 203 4.6 16 0
Total 13 1969 10,911 5.5 90 67

 

  Receiving      
Yr Team C Yds Avg Lg TD
1952 Cgy 7 74 10.6   0
1953 Cgy 1 7 7.0 7 0
1954 C/E 5 89 17.8 30 0
1955 Edm 5 110 22.0 38 0
1956 Edm 9 151 16.8 28 1
1957 Edm 18 300 16.7 29 0
1958 Edm 19 265 13.9 37 0
1959 Edm 24 506 21.1 52 3
1960 Edm 10 139 13.9 26 0
1961 Edm 13 219 16.8 34 0
1962 Edm 7 70 10.0 21 0
1963 Edm 11 111 10.1 32 0
1964 Edm 4 17 4.3 6 0
Total 13 133 2,058 15.5 70 4