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A brutal attack on a black Heisman favorite led the NCAA to make face masks mandatory

Drake’s Johnny Bright was racially targeted in a game against Oklahoma A&M

Ten years before Syracuse running back Ernie Davis became the first African-American to win the Heisman Trophy in 1961, Drake University’s dual-threat back Johnny Bright was the first African-American Heisman front-runner. A brutal play ended his Heisman bid, forced rule changes and had an impact on the impending civil rights movement.

With Bright leading the way, Drake got off to a 5-0 start in 1951. Bright was one of the first dual-threat quarterbacks and became the first college player to both rush and pass for more than 1,000 yards in a season. Going into Drake’s game against Missouri Valley Conference foe Oklahoma A&M (now Oklahoma State), Bright led the nation in rushing, total offense and scoring. Bright also led the NCAA in total offense in 1949 and 1950, setting a then-collegiate record of 2,400 yards in 1950 for a per-game average of 266.7 yards, also an NCAA record.

Bright and his teammates headed to Stillwater, Oklahoma, with the hype of an undefeated team led by the top Heisman candidate. A victory would give Drake the conference title and help tighten Bright’s grip on the trophy.

But Oklahoma A&M had other things in mind. There were pregame rumors and reports from two campus newspapers on how Oklahoma A&M coach Jennings Bryan Whitworth encouraged his players to go after Bright and how some players talked about knocking him out of the game.

It didn’t take long.

In the first few minutes of the Oct. 20 contest, Bright took the snap in Drake’s single-wing offense and handed the ball off to fullback Gene Macomber. As Macomber ran to his left and with Bright clearly out of the play, Oklahoma A&M defensive lineman Wilbanks Smith ran through the line untouched and broke Bright’s jaw with a right forearm smash. Bright fell to the ground. The face mask was not mandatory in those days, and most players, including Bright, did not have one.

Bright was assisted off the field, but he returned and completed a 61-yard touchdown pass. Smith and Oklahoma A&M continued to target Bright with rough play, and Bright reportedly was knocked unconscious a few times before his coaches took him out of the game for good. He finished with fewer than 100 yards for the only time in his career. Drake lost 27-14.

The following day, six sequences of photos of the incident were splashed across the front page of The Des Moines Sunday Register: “Bright’s Jaw Broken, Drake Streak Ends.” The hit was captured by Des Moines Register photographers Don Ultang and John Robinson. The photos earned Ultang and Robinson the 1952 Pulitzer Prize for photography.

Reports from the game and the photos shocked a nation.

Central Michigan professor of history Lane Demas, who detailed this incident in his book Integrating the Gridiron: Black Civil Rights and American College Football, said this was arguably college football’s biggest racial controversy of the 1950s, along with the integration of the Sugar Bowl in January 1956.

“For many fans, the incident dramatically highlighted the degree of discrimination black athletes faced in order to participate in college sport,” Demas said.

The incident was serious enough that Drake withdrew from the conference in protest because Oklahoma A&M would not discipline Smith. Drake returned to the conference five years later for all sports except football. It did not return to the conference for football until 1971. Oklahoma State formally apologized in 2005.

After the 1951 season, the NCAA rules committee made it mandatory for face masks to be added to helmets. The masks were to be made of nonbreakable, molded plastic with rounded edges. In 1952, the penalty for striking with an elbow, forearm or locked hands, or for flagrantly rough play or unsportsmanlike conduct, was changed from 15 yards to 15 yards and a mandatory suspension.

Following the 1961 season, the rules committee recommended that all players wear properly fitted mouth protectors. The mouthpiece became mandatory for players in 1973.

Smith, now 87, has spoken about his hit in several interviews. The retired engineer in Kingwood, Texas, remains consistent in saying that the play was not racially motivated and he has nothing for which to apologize.

“It wasn’t what was written,” Smith said by phone. “I didn’t do anything unusual. People think it was a big deal. … [Those type of plays] was happening all over the country.”

Smith received letters of praise from white supremacists along with condemnation from across the country. Bright told the Des Moines Register years later that there was no way the incident could not have been racially motivated.

The broken jaw ended Bright’s bid for the Heisman. He played in just one more game. He finished fifth in the Heisman race behind Princeton’s Dick Kazmaier. Bright did make first-team All-American and was awarded the Nils V. “Swede” Nelson Sportsmanship Award.

The Pulitzer Prize photos of the incident affected the civil rights movement.

“To actually see it was something relatively new, and that echoed the broader civil rights struggle,” Demas said. “The success of the postwar civil rights movement was all about dramatizing and visualizing the injustice of segregation. That meant capturing images of it and having those images circulate around the world. Whether it be pictures of Emmett Till’s corpse in 1955, pictures of lunch counter sit-ins in 1960 or pictures of black children sprayed by Birmingham’s water cannons in 1963 — it was images of brutal white supremacy that captured sympathy from around the world. The Bright photos were an early example of what was to come.”

Not winning the Heisman didn’t stop Bright’s success. After he set 20 school records at Drake in football, track and basketball, he was the No. 1 pick of the Philadelphia Eagles in 1952. But he opted to play in the Canadian Football League because of its greater racial tolerance. He led Edmonton to Grey Cup titles in 1954, 1955 and 1956. In 1959, Bright became the first African-American to win the CFL’s Most Outstanding Player award. He was inducted into the CFL and College Football Halls of Fame.

Drake retired Bright’s No. 43 jersey and named the field turf Johnny Bright Field at Drake Stadium in his honor. Bright died of a heart attack in 1983 before knee surgery. He left a wife and four children.

One of Bright’s children, Deanie Bright-Johnson, was 29 when her father died. She does not recall that the incident weighed on Bright.

“The first time I ever heard about the incident was when I was in college when he gave me a book with the pictures that won the Pulitzer,” Bright-Johnson said. “I had to do my own research to learn about [the incident] because he didn’t talk about it. One lesson I learned from my dad was if something [negative] happened, to not dwell on it and keep moving forward.”

Branson Wright is a filmmaker and freelance multimedia sports reporter.