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Wed, 06.11.1930

Johnny Bright, Football Player, born

Johnny Bright

*Johnny Bright was born on this date in 1930. He was a Black college and professional football player in the Canadian Football League.

John Dee Bright was the second oldest of five children raised by his mother in a working-class neighborhood in Fort Wayne, Indiana. He and his brothers shared two double beds in one room, while his mother and sister shared another bedroom. At Central High School in Fort Wayne, Bright excelled at basketball, track & field, and football (he also boxed and played softball). He helped his high school qualify for two Indiana State High School semifinals in basketball. During a track-and-field meet, he also won the 1945 Fort Wayne city championship in football and pole-vaulted 12 feet with a bamboo pole.

After graduating from High School in 1947, Bright initially accepted a football scholarship at Michigan State University but transferred to Drake University. There he received a track and field scholarship. During his collegiate career at Drake, Bright lettered in football, track, and basketball. Bright's senior year began with consideration as a pre-season Heisman Trophy candidate.  He led the nation in rushing and total offense with 821 and 1,349 yards, respectively, when the Drake Bulldogs faced Oklahoma A&M at Lewis Field in Stillwater, Oklahoma, on October 20, 1951.

During that game, Bright was the victim of an intentional, racially motivated, on-field assault by Wilbanks Smith, a player from Oklahoma A&M. It was captured in a widely disseminated Pulitzer Prize-winning photo sequence and eventually came to be known as the "Johnny Bright incident." Bright's jaw injury limited his effectiveness for the remainder of his senior season at Drake. Still, he finished his college career with 5,983 yards in total offense, averaging better than 236 yards per game in total offense, and scored 384 points in 25 games.

Following his final football season at Drake (1951), Bright was named a First Team College Football All-American and finished fifth in the balloting for the 1951 Heisman Trophy. Professional football career Bright was the first pick of the Philadelphia Eagles in the first round of the 1952 National Football League draft. Bright spurned the NFL, electing to play for the Calgary Stampeders of the Canadian Football League. Bright later commented: "I would have been their (the Eagles') first Negro player. There was a tremendous influx of Southern players into the NFL then, and I didn't know what kind of treatment I could expect." 

In 1954, the Calgary Stampeders traded him to the Edmonton Eskimos in mid-season. He would enjoy the most success of his professional football career as a member of the Eskimos. He helped lead the Eskimos to successive Grey Cup titles in 1954, 1955, and 1956. In 1959, following his third straight season as the Canadian pro rushing leader with 1,340 yards, Bright won the CFL's Most Outstanding Player Award, the first black athlete to be honored. NFL teams approached Bright several times during his Canadian career about playing. In the days before the large salaries of today's NFL players, it was common for CFL players like him to have jobs in addition to football.

He started teaching in 1957 when he moved his family to Edmonton. I'd established a home, and Canada had been good to me. I might have been interested if the offers could have matched what I was making from both football and teaching.  Bright retired in 1964 as the CFL's all-time leading rusher. In 1969, Bright was named Drake University's most outstanding football player. He is also the only Drake football player with the school's jersey number (No. 43) retired. In June 2006, Bright received an honorable mention from senior writer Ivan Maisel as one of the best college football players ever wearing No. 43.

Bright's No. 24 jersey was added to the Edmonton Eskimos' Wall of Honor at the Eskimos' Commonwealth Stadium in 1983. Bright was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame on November 26, 1970. In November 2006, Bright was voted one of the CFL's Top 50 players (No. 19) of the league's modern era by Canadian sports network TSN. Johnny Bright died on December 14, 1983.

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