Little Bits of History

Football Fiasco

Posted in History by patriciahysell on October 20, 2011

Johnny Bright being attacked on the football field

October 20, 1951: Johnny Bright is assaulted on the football field. The game was played in Stillwater, Oklahoma. Drake University (Des Moines, Iowa) was playing against Oklahoma A&M (today Oklahoma State University). Bright was playing halfback/quarterback on this day. Two years earlier he had played at Lewis Field without incident. On this day, with racial tensions higher, the African-American Bright was the target of Caucasian Wilbanks Smith, a defensive tackle playing for the Oklahoma Aggies.

In the first seven minutes of the game, Smith knocked Bright unconscious three times. The last time Smith tackled the quarterback, Bright’s jaw was fractured. He still able to complete a 61-yard touchdown pass to Jim Pikington, the Drake Bulldog’s halfback, a few plays later. Bright was unable to continue playing and left the field a few plays after. He managed less than 100 yards for the game, the first time in his three year college career. Oklahoma won the game 27-14.

A reporter from the Des Moines Register, Bob Spiegel, interviewed some spectators after the game and published his report on October 30. The Oklahoma students Spiegel had interviewed reported hearing the Aggie coach instructing his players to “get the nigger” repeatedly during practices prior to this game. Apparently, some of the practice squad players were seated in front of the Spiegels and one of them turned to Bob and his wife before the game and stated, “We’re gonna get that nigger.”

The photographer from the Register also was able to capture the incident on film. John Robinson and Don Ultang were able to show a six picture sequence that revealed the blow that broke Bright’s jaw was delivered after the ball had already been handed off to Gene Macomber. There was no disciplinary action taken and Drake University and another college withdrew from the football conference for several years in protest.

Johnny Bright went on to play with the Edmonton Eskimos for ten years, from 1954- 1964. He had played with the Calgary Stampeders from 1952-54 after he refused to play with the Philadelphia Eagles who selected him in a first round draft. He played a variety of position in his pro-ball career, eventually becoming an offensive player who helped lead his team to victory. He managed eight consecutive games with over 100 yards rushing. He spurned US teams throughout his career. He used his college degree and became a teacher, coach, and school administrator. He died of a massive heart attack in 1983 at the age of 53.

“Football is like life – it requires perseverance, self-denial, hard work, sacrifice, dedication and respect for authority.” – Vince Lombardi

“Football is an incredible game. Sometimes it’s so incredible, it’s unbelievable.” – Tom Landry

“Four years of football are calculated to breed in the average man more of the ingredients of success in life than almost any academic course he takes.” – Knute Rockne

“I also tell them that your education can take you way farther than a football, baseball, track, or basketball will – that’s just the bottom line.” – Bo Jackson

Also on this day:
Subway Vigilante – In 1987, Bernard (Bernie) Goetz was sentenced.
What Big Feet You Have – In 1967, a film of Bigfoot was taken – maybe.

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2 Responses

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  1. Sherry said, on October 21, 2015 at 3:02 pm

    Bright was obviously a good man, stuck in an era where that kind of racist violence could be gotten away with. Sickening that the Aggie’s coach, Smith, and the university itself suffered no consequences.

    You don’t say what became of Smith. If he carried that ugly mindset throughout his life, however, I’m sure he was a miserable excuse of a human being to the day he died.

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