The intentional slugging of Drake halfback Johnny Bright in a football game at Oklahoma A&M (now Oklahoma State) on October 21, 1951 caused repercussions in the intercollegiate athletics world and also brought about some changes in rules and equipment.
Drake had won five straight games before heading to Stillwater and the outcome of the game probably would decide the Missouri Valley Conference championship that fall.
Bright was an established star coming into the contest, having led the nation in total offense in 1949 (the first sophomore in history), again in 1950 and again was leading the NCAA national statistics in total offense, rushing and scoring.
It was obvious that Bright was a “marked man” at the start of the game. He was knocked unconscious three times in the first seven minutes by Oklahoma tackle, Wilbanks Smith. While the final blow broke Bright’s jaw, he was able to throw a 61-yard touchdown pass a few plays later before the injury finally forced him to leave the game.
Fortunately, for Drake (and history) the Des Moines Register had decided to send a photo crew to the game. Although they were using a new, faster plane, the crew would be able to shoot only the first few minutes of the game in order to get back to Des Moines and have the photo coverage in Sunday’s edition. Cameramen, Don Ultang and John Robinson captured the assault on Bright in machine gun camera sequence that would later win them a Pulitzer Prize. The photo sequence received world-wide exposure and was also reprinted in Life Magazine.
Because of this incident and because the Missouri Valley Conference refused to take any action, Drake University withdrew from the conference for several years before resuming conference membership in 1955.
Bright was a great all-around athlete. He lettered in football, basketball and track as a Drake sophomore, before deciding to concentrate on football in his next two years of competition. He was also regarded as one of the state’s best softball pitchers at the time and is in the Iowa Softball Hall of Fame. Bright was drafted No. 1 by the Philadelphia Eagles of the NFL, but instead went to Canada where he played for Calgary in 1952, 1953, and part of 1954, before moving to the Edmonton Eskimos where he won numerous CFL honors in a 14 season career. Bright was revered in Canada not only for his outstanding football career but for his work as a junior high school principal and for work with youth.
Bright is also in the Des Moines Register’s Iowa Sports Hall of Fame, the National Football Foundation’s College Football Hall of Fame, as well as the Canadian Football Hall of Fame and the Edmonton Sports Hall of Fame. He also received the Swede Nelson Award (Gridiron Club of Boston) in 1951, signifying outstanding sportsmanship. That same year he was fifth in the balloting for the prestigious Heisman Trophy. He also played in the Shrine East-West game and the Hula bowl.
Bright, ED’52, was honored in 1969 as the greatest Drake football player of all time. He was also one of the first recipients of the Drake National D Club’s Double “D” Award.
Johnny Bright died December 14, 1983, of a massive heart attack while undergoing an operation to correct a football knee injury. The incident of 1951 brought about changes in football rules regarding blocking and also more protective helmets, with face guards. The incident was also a part of a TNT 90-minute feature “Moment of Impact: Stories of the Pulitzer Prize Photographs” in the summer of 1999.