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This day in 1951 changed football forever, the Johnny Bright Incident

On October 20th, 1951 Drake University football player Johnny Bright changed the game of football forever.

Johnny Bright was the first Black person to be a Heisman contender and the first Black player to play at Oklahoma A&M's stadium. Bright and his Drake teammates went to Oklahoma A&M for their October 20th game only to find that Oklahoma A&M's head coach had been encouraging players to "go after" Bright.

During the first few minutes of the game, Oklahoma A&M defensive lineman Willbanks Smith ran through the line, straight to Bright who was out of the play, and slammed him with what has been described as a "forearm smash". Like most players during that era, Bright was not wearing a face mask. He continued to play in the game even after the attack but lost consciousness multiple times before his coaches finally took him out of the game. The attack caused Bright's jaw to be so badly broken that it had to be wired shut. Smith was never punished or held accountable for his actions.

Interestingly, photographers from the Des Moines Register made the trip to the game as they were anticipating dirty play. They ended up capturing the incident in 6 separate photos. These photos went on to win the 1952 Pulitzer Prize.


This brutal incident not only showcased just how plagued with racism the country was but also brought the need for safety precautions to the forefront of the game. The incident was the catalyst for the NCAA to change helmet rules.

Following the 1951 season, the NCAA made face masks mandatory on helmets. The rule even made guidelines for what material the masks could be made out of. A year later rules were amended to make flagrantly rough play, and striking with elbow, forearm or locked hands a 15 yard penalty AND a mandatory suspension.

This is considered by some historians as one of the most racially controversial events in football history, along with the integration of the Sugar Bowl in 1956. Drake removed itself from the conference as a result of the incident and did not return to it for football until almost 20 years later.

Bright went on to set school records in track, football and basketball AND then became the number 1 pick for the Eagles. However, citing fear of racial intolerance in the United States, Bright instead went on to have a successful career in the Canadian Football League.

This was only 69 years ago.