A product of Central High School, Johnny Bright took a scholarship at Drake University, located in Des Moines, Iowa, to run track, with the condition that he could try out for the football and basketball teams. After sitting out the mandatory year of freshman ineligibility, Bright tried out for the football team and made the squad after two days. A few days after that, he became the focus of the offense.
As a sophomore, Bright rushed for 975 yards and threw for 975 yards 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 as a junior to set an NCAA record for total offense. The next season he was leading the nation in rushing and total offense with 821 yards rushing and 1,349 yards passing, but his real challenge came when the Bulldogs played at Oklahoma A&M on Oct. 20, 1951.
As a sophomore in 1949, Bright became the first black player to play at Stillwater, but this game would be much rougher. After taking two late hits early, Bright was well away from the play when he was blasted by Aggies defensive lineman Wilbanks Smith, who hit Bright so hard he was lifted off his feet. Despite suffering a broken jaw, Bright picked himself off the turf and came back the next play to throw a touchdown pass, 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, but the Oklahoma A&M president said he saw nothing unusual with the play. Photos from the game by John Robinson and Don Ultang of the Des Moines Register showed the severity and won a Pulitzer Prize.
Bright came back to play one more game two weeks later, rushing for 204 yards against Great Lakes Naval Station, to finish with more than 6,000 yards in career total offense. He averaged 236 yards per game and scored 384 points in 25 games. He finished fifth in the Heisman voting.
But the incident scarred Bright and Drake. When the Missouri Valley Conference took no action against Oklahoma A&M, Drake eventually left the league.
On Dec. 4, 1984, Bright was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.
After his college career, Bright was drafted by Philadelphia in the NFL and Edmonton in the Canadian Football League. He chose to sign in Edmonton where he sparked a dynasty as the Eskimos won Grey Cup titles in 1954, 1955 and 1956. Bright's football career ended in 1964 after he gained 10,909 yards rushing in 13 seasons. He played in an amazing 197 consecutive games as both a linebacker and a fullback and was inducted into the CFL Hall of Fame in 1970.
During his playing days and after his retirement, Bright was a teacher, coach and school administrator.
After he died of a heart attack at age 53 in 1983, the Edmonton Journal presented the first annual John Bright Memorial Award to recognize exceptional high school students who excelled in academics, athletics and citizenship.
In 2006, Drake named the football field for him.
About This Series
Ever wonder what a Northeast Indiana Sports Hall of Fame might include? During a time when it may be difficult to look ahead to great sporting events, The Journal Gazette is going to offer you a look into Fort Wayne and Northeast Indiana's fantastic athletic past. Over the next few weeks, we'll offer some suggestions on the people and events which could be featured in such a facility.