HISTORY >> CFL Legends >> Johnny Bright | CFL.ca | Official Site of the Canadian Football League
 
 
HISTORY >> CFL Legends >> Johnny Bright

RB - Calgary & Edmonton

1952 - 1964

By TED SOUTAR

Johnny Bright He was truly an amazing athlete in an age of amazing athletes. His contemporaries included the likes of Jackie Robinson (who some have compared him to), Henry Aaron, Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays in baseball, as well as Wilt Chamberlain in basketball. In hockey, legends such as Rocket Richard, Gordie Howe, and Doug Harvey were in their prime. On the gridiron, he played with some of the legends of pro football on either side of the border: Jackie Parker, Rollie Miles and Normie Kwong, to name but a few. Yet when he was done few could match him. He preceded the first Heisman Trophy winner to come to Canada, Billy Vessels (who also won the very first Schenley award), and stayed long after Vessels had departed. He was, of course, Johnny Bright. But he's become an almost forgotten man on both sides of the border.

At the time of his retirement, he owned nearly every rushing record in pro football. Only two men had scored more touchdowns: his teammate Normie Kwong had 83 (78 rushing), and Montreal's Virgil Wagner, who played from 1946 to 1954, had 79. Bright finished with 71 - 69 of them rushing.

No one had rushed for more yards in all of pro football at that time. Until Mike Pringle surpassed him in 2000, he was second in all-time CFL rushing yardage. He's still third all-time, and unlikely to be moved from that spot soon, if ever. And while several NFL players have passed him in career yards, he still remains 15th on the All-Pro Rushing list. Of those 15 players, his amazing career average of 5.5 yards per carry still remains the highest; only Jim Brown's 5.2 is even close!

He had five consecutive 1,000+-yard seasons; another record until the great George Reed had six from 1964-1969. In 1957 he had nine 100+-yard games, eight of them consecutively. Only four men have had as many in one season since, and only one, Pringle, has had more consecutively.

His playoff record for most career touchdowns (19) still stands, although Reed tied it. No one else is even close. He was the first player to score three touchdowns in one playoff game. Only Kwong and Reed have more career rushing attempts or rushing yards. Only Reed has more career rushing TD's or 100+-yard playoff games.

In the Grey Cup, only two players, both receivers, have more career touchdowns. Bright shares the record for most rushing touchdowns with several players. And no one - absolutely no one - has rushed for more yards in a Grey Cup game than Johnny Bright. It's doubtful anyone will match his 171-yard performance in the 1956 classic.

Yet for all that, many have forgotten this amazing athlete. Few in the U.S. will know him outside of Iowa where he played in college, or his native Indiana. And here in Canada, few will have heard of, let alone remember the event that would change the course of his life forever. Now fifty years after that abhorrent event, it's high time we did, if only to ensure it never happens again. It was that event that eventually led him to Canada, where he remained until his death.

In his poignant essay "Johnny Bright - America's Loss", Hugh Wyatt contends that, "Bright might well have become the first black Heisman Trophy winner, but a brutal act of racism cost him what chance he might have had. Having already experienced first-hand the physical violence that Jackie Robinson, for all his courage, had only been threatened with, and unsure of his safety on the playing fields of his own country, he became the first-ever NFL first-round draft choice to leave for Canada.

And instead of becoming one of the best players the NFL has ever seen, he became one of the best players in the history of Canadian football, and a valued and respected member of his community when his playing days were over."

Warrick Lee Barrett, in his book, "Johnny Bright, Champion" described him as: "A man of limitless talent..... he overcame countless obstacles to become a master in the game of life. Johnny Bright was challenged by poverty, discrimination and poor sportsmanship, including an episode notorious enough to earn a photojournalistic Pulitzer Prize. Still, he combined intelligence and exceptional athletic ability with an enthusiastic dedication to turn obstacles into opportunities for self-improvement.

A pioneer among black student-athletes, and the (first) National Football League first-round draftee to "head north," Bright was recognized as one of the Canadian Football League's greatest running backs of all time. Once he had mastered football, he became an outstanding coach and educator, devoting the rest of his life to children." And in an unnamed review of the book, one reviewer wrote,

"If Johnny Bright had chosen to play in the National Football League rather than the Canadian Football League, his name would, undoubtedly be of greater recognition at this time. Although Johnny Bright labored (sic) in relative obscurity, he was too great not to be remembered at this time."

High school & college

Born June 11, 1930, in Fort Wayne, Indiana, Bright attended Central High School, where he led his team to the city football championship in 1945. He also played on the basketball team and led them to two state Final Four appearances. Though only 5-foot-10 and 180 pounds at the time, one former Central Catholic teammate later remarked Bright could touch the rim with his elbow.

In track, he was a one-man wrecking crew, on several occasions winning as many as five events during a meet, including clearing 12 feet in the pole vault using a bamboo pole.

Bright was as well known for his attitude as for his abilities. A lot of people misinterpreted it as cockiness, but he was simply that good. And he could do just about anything. Besides football, basketball, and track, he was also an outstanding boxer and softball pitcher.

Yet for all his accomplishments, no Indiana college recruited him. Purdue showed no interest whatsoever, Notre Dame didn't recruit blacks at that time, and according to his high school coach, Indiana University's coach said he "already had enough black running backs."

So instead, he took a scholarship at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa to run track, with the condition that he could try out for the football and basketball teams. After sitting out a mandatory year of freshman ineligibility, Bright tried out for the football team and made the squad after two days. A few days after, he became the focus of the offense. He lettered in three sports as a sophomore - track, basketball and football, but decided to concentrate on football.

It immediately became apparent to his coaches that they had something special in Johnny Bright. As a sophomore in 1949, Bright rushed for 975 yards and threw for another 975 to lead the nation in total offense as the Bulldogs went 6-2-1. He followed that with 1,232 yards rushing and 1,168 yards passing in 1950 to set an NCAA record for total offense.

Heading into his senior year, Bright had bulked up to just over 200 pounds, mostly in the arms and shoulders. His coat size had grown from 42 to 46 in two years. Hugely muscled, the massive physical specimen, nicknamed "Panda" because of his bushy black eyebrows was considered a pre-season Heisman Trophy candidate. He was leading the nation in both rushing and total offense with 821 and 1,349 yards respectively, when the Bulldogs played at Oklahoma A&M (now Oklahoma State) on October 20, 1951.

The incident & aftermath

Though Bright was not the first black player at Drake, this would be the first time a black opponent played at Oklahoma A&M. On a late hit early in the game, after Bright had handed off the ball, Aggies' defensive lineman Wilbanks Smith charged in with a vicious blow to Bright's face well behind the play. Bright suffered a broken jaw. After picking himself off the turf, Bright came back to throw a touchdown pass on the next play, but another hit knocked him out of the game a few plays later.

Immediately after the game, Drake officials accused Oklahoma A&M of dirty play and being out to "get" Bright. A sequence of photos by John Robinson and Don Ultang of the Des Moines Register seemed to confirm the sheer savagery of the act. The photos, in fact, won a Pulitzer Prize, and made the cover of Life magazine. It was difficult for anyone who saw those pictures to avoid the conclusion that Johnny Bright was targeted not so much because he was a very good football player, but because he was black.

Two things happened as a result of what came to be known as the "Johnny Bright Incident": Drake protested and eventually left the Missouri Valley Conference, and the NCAA soon required players to wear facemasks and mouth guards. The NCAA also adopted a rule change requiring a player to leave the game if caught striking a foe with "forearm, elbow or locked hand."

The Monday following the game, then-sports editor of the Des Moines Register Sec Taylor, angry about the attack, said in his column that he hoped the Oklahoma A&M athletic director would retire the jersey worn by the player who slugged Bright.

Taylor said the jersey was contaminated by the "muckerism it represents." He suggested it be fumigated and put in a place where it would become an emblem of "things college football does not stand for."

He then said henceforth he never would mention the player's name in his column, only his jersey number.

"I won't sully our clean journal by the use of his name," he wrote. A picture of the Oklahoma A&M player appeared in the column.

Beneath it, in place of his name, was only this identification: "Number 72".

As for Bright, the 215-pound senior had to have a tooth removed so he could be fed through a straw; the jaws were wired together and he played again two weeks later, running for 204 yards and one touchdown, and passing for two more against Great Lakes Naval Station. He finished his college career with almost 6,000 yards in total offense, averaging better than 236 yards per game in total offense and scoring 384 points in 25 games. As a senior he earned 70 percent of the yards Drake gained and scored 70 percent of the Bulldogs' points, despite missing three games. In spite of these impressive stats, he finished fifth in Heisman voting.

Professional career

Though the Philadelphia Eagles drafted Bright with their first pick in 1951, he was wary of playing in the NFL.

"I would have been their first Negro player, but there was a tremendous influx of Southern players into the NFL at that time, and I didn't know what kind of treatment I could expect," Bright later recalled.

Instead, he decided to play in the Canadian Football League. The Calgary Stampeders signed him in 1952 as a linebacker. As the first NFL first-round draft choice to elect to go to Canada, the signing of Johnny Bright was a major coup for Canadian football. At that time competing head-to-head with the NFL for talent was much different than it is today. For one thing, Canadian clubs generally paid more. For another, the Canadian dollar was worth more than its American counterpart. The following year, the Heisman Trophy winner, Billy Vessels of Oklahoma, would also pass up the NFL to play in Canada, signing with the Eskimos.

Bright spent two seasons as a tailback and linebacker with the Calgary Stampeders. In 1954, depending on whom you talk to, he either became involved in a contract dispute, or shoulder injuries led the team to write him off. Either way, he was traded (or sold - again, depending on who you talk to) to Edmonton. It turned out to be the best thing that had happened to him in several years. His personal career took off. Though John was strictly a linebacker the first year with the Eskimos, he played both ways for two seasons and went back to offense permanently after that. He led the Western Conference in rushing four times and was all-conference six times. And teaming with such standouts as legendary Canadians Rollie Miles and Normie Kwong as well as quarterback Jackie Parker, he helped lead 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 and nearly 500 yards ahead of Saskatchewan's Cookie Gilchrist. In 1959, following his third straight season as the CFL's rushing leader, he won the Schenley Award as the CFL's Most Outstanding Player, the first black athlete to be so honored.

Life after football

Bright retired in 1964 as the CFL's all-time leading rusher (George Reed and Mike Pringle have since surpassed him). He had rushed for 10,909 yards in 13 seasons, had five consecutive 1,000 yard seasons, and led the CFL in rushing four times. He had thirty-six 100+-yard games, a record at that time. For five straight seasons, he had 200 or more carries. In 1957 he had eight consecutive 100-yard games. He was a Western All-Star selection five straight seasons from 1957 to 1961. He played in an amazing 197 consecutive games as both a linebacker and a fullback. He was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame November 26, 1970, and the U.S. College Football Hall of Fame in 1984.

The NFL approached Bright several times about returning to play in the U.S., but it was common in those days for CFL players to hold regular jobs in addition to football, and he had already started a teaching career in 1957, the year he moved his family to Edmonton.

"I'd established a home and Canada had been good to me," he once recalled.

"I might have been interested, if the offers could have matched what I was making from both football and teaching."

Johnny took out Canadian citizenship in 1962, but his wife and three children all remained American citizens. After his retirement from football, he devoted his full time to teaching, and eventually became a junior high school principal in Edmonton. He was a much-loved and respected educator who tried to instill in his pupils the appreciation of the power of words over physical strength.

Sadly, he passed away at an early age. On December 14, 1983, at the age of 53, during anesthesia for elective knee surgery, he went into cardiac arrest. The doctors were unable to revive him. He was buried in Holy Cross Cemetery in his adopted home of Edmonton. The entire city mourned. Earlier that year, he became the second player enshrined on the Eskimos' "Wall of Honour" in Commonwealth Stadium.

Perhaps the finest word, if not the final word on Bright's career belongs to Terry Hersom, Sports Editor of the Sioux City Journal:

"He led the CFL in rushing four times in front of cheering Canadian throngs less encumbered by ignorant hatred that our country (the U.S.) has still not entirely purged. Those who know the story well have an obligation to pass it on. Those who don't will be better just for listening."

"Greatness, after all, is only as memorable as we permit it to be."

Amen.

CAREER STATISTICS (incomplete):

COLLEGE CAREER:
Year Team League GP Rush Att Rush Yds Rush TD Pass Att Pass Comp Pass Yds Pass TD Total TD Pts
1949 Drake University NCAA 9   975              
1950 Drake University NCAA 9   1232       1168      
1951 Drake University NCAA 7   1025       1349      
College Career Totals: 25 513 3134 40     2769 24 64 384
  • Though listed officially as a Halfback, it is obvious he also played Quarterback.
  • Total Offense of 2,400 yards (1,232 rushing, 1,168 passing) in 1950.
  • His career total of 40 touchdowns is listed as the "modern" NCAA record, as is his career average of 218.6 yards.
  • The great back amassed 5,903 in total offense - 3,134 by rushing in 513 attempts (a 6.1-yard average). He also passed for 24 touchdowns during his career as a Bulldog and Drake went 6-2-1, 6-2-1 and 7-2 against predominantly major college foes.
PRO CAREER:
Year Team League GP Rush Rush Rush Avg Rec Rec Rec Total Pts
        Att Yds TD     Yds TD TD  
1952 CAL WIFU   144 815 2 5.7 4 80 0 2 10
1953 CAL WIFU   38 128 0 3.4 2 43 0 0 0
1954 CAL/ EDM WIFU   45 214 0 4.8 5 89 0 0 0
1955 EDM WIFU   107 643 2 6.1 5 110 0 2 10
1956 EDM CFC   93 573 4 6.2 9 151 1 5 30
1957 EDM CFC   259 1679 16 6.5 18 300 0 16 96
1958 EDM CFL   296 1722 8 5.8 19 265 0 8 48
1959 EDM CFL   231 1340 11 5.8 23 274 0 11 66
1960 EDM CFL   251 1268 13 5.1 10 139 0 14 84
1961 EDM CFL   236 1350 11 5.7 13 219 0 11 66
1962 EDM CFL   142 650 2 4.6 7 70 0 2 12
1963 EDM CFL   83 324 0 3.9 11 111 0 0 0
1964 EDM CFL 16 44 203 0 4.6 4 17 0 0 0
Pro Football Totals 197 1969 10909 69 5.5 130 1868 1 71 428

Note: Touchdown value changed from 5 points to 6 points in 1956.

AWARDS AND HONOURS:

All-Star team selection - 1952, 1957, 1958, 1959, 1960, 1961

Outstanding player - 1958 Shriner game

Schenley Award - Most Outstanding Player, 1959

Edmonton's Athlete of the Year - 1959

Eddie James Memorial Trophy for leading rusher in Western Division - 1952, 1957, 1958, 1959

Drake University's "Player of the Century"

Member of Alberta, Edmonton, Iowa, U.S. College, and Canadian Football Halls of Fame

Member, Eskimos "Wall of Honour"

Grey Cup Winner - 1954, 1955, 1956

OTHER ACHIEVEMENTS:

High School football coach with 74-27 record

High School basketball coach with 304-46 record

Edmonton Monarchs pro fastball team coach; 1972 Coach of the Year

SOURCES:

  1. "GO JOHNNY GO"

    by Blake Sebring, Fort Wayne News-Sentinel; December 29, 1999
  2. "JOHNNY BRIGHT - AMERICA'S LOSS"

    by Hugh Wyatt, www.coachwyatt.com; September 14, 2000
  3. "PERFECT TIME TO REMEMBER BRIGHT LEGEND"

    by Terry Hersom, Sioux City Journal Sports Editor, "FOR THE RECORD"; July 7, 1999
  4. "DRAKE STAR HOLDS 2 U.S. MARKS - BRIGHT JOINS IOWA 'HALL'"

    by Buck Turnbull, Staff Writer, Des Moines Register; March 24, 1970
  5. "SEC TAYLOR CITED FOR CONTRIBUTIONS"

    by Gene Raffensperger, Staff Writer, Des Moines Register; July 8, 1990
  6. Johnny Bright's grave - website: www.findagrave.com
  7. CFL FACTS, FIGURES, AND RECORDS: 2000 & 2001 Editions
  8. THE 2001 UNOFFICIAL CANADIAN FOOTBALL ENCYCLOPAEDIA

    by Ronald A. Ferroni
  9. "LEGENDS OF AUTUMN"

    by Denny Boyd and Brian Scrivener; Greystone Books - 170 pages (1997)
  10. "JOHNNY BRIGHT, CHAMPION"

by Warrick Lee Barrett, Scott Michaels; Mass Market Paperback - 172 pages (June 1, 1996)

Special thanks to Janice Smith and staff, CANADIAN FOOTBALL HALL OF FAME, Hamilton, Ontario.

Thanks also to Glen Hallick, RSFC.

Fan Poll
Will Jon Cornish break 100 yards rushing in the Grey Cup?
1) Yes
2) No