Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Lousy Reporting--Column on Johnny Bright, No Mention of Broken Jaw

It's difficult to believe that someone could write a sports column about former Drake football standout Johnny Bright without mentioning that Bright's jaw was broken in a 1951 game against Oklahoma A&M [now Oklahoma State].

But I have found such a column, thanks to former newspaper editor and reporter Bud Appleby--who sent it to me.

In the column by Blake Sebring that follows, there is no mention of the 1951 Drake-Oklahoma A&M game in which Wilbanks Smith, an Oklahoma A&M tackle, broke Bright's jaw with a forearm on the first play of the game.

Here's Sebring's column as it appeared in the Ft. Wayne (Ind.) News-Sentinel. I don't know how many other pertinent facts about Bright were left out:

A column by Blake Sebring
Ft. Wayne (Ind.) News-Sentinel

What if ... Johnny Bright had played in the NFL

[EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the seventh in a weekly series of eight features that take a mostly lighthearted look at what might have been had some of Fort Wayne’s most notable teams and players taken different paths].

Before Joe Namath, Deion Sanders, Shannon Sharpe or Terrell Owens, there might have been Johnny Bright to draw the attention of NFL fans.

When The News-Sentinel named northeast Indiana’s 50 great athletes of the 20th century in 1999, perhaps the biggest talking point was the selection panel’s choice of Rod Woodson as No. 1 over Johnny Bright. While both would be worthy candidates in any city, many of Bright’s contemporaries said Woodson was not nearly the athlete.

In the end, the final vote seemed to be determined by the fact that Woodson played in the NFL and in a Super Bowl, while Bright played in the lesser-known Canadian Football League. When the former Central star graduated from Drake University in 1952, the Philadelphia Eagles drafted Bright with their first pick, so he had the opportunity initially.

“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 would later say.

Instead, Bright chose to play in the CFL and was signed by the Calgary Stampeders as a linebacker in 1952. Shoulder injuries led to a trade to the Edmonton Eskimos in 1954, and that’s where Bright’s career took off. He led the Eskimos to Grey Cup titles in 1954, 1955 and 1956, and in 1958 he rushed for 1,722 yards to earn CFL Player of the Year honors. Four times he was the CFL’s top rusher.

The NFL approached Bright several times, but he always declined, partly because he had already started his teaching career in Edmonton.

“I might have been interested,” he once said, “if the offers could have matched what I was making from both football and teaching.”

Bright’s football career ended in 1964 after 10,909 yards rushing in 13 seasons. He still holds CFL records for most career playoff touchdowns, most yards gained in a Grey Cup game, and for playing an amazing 197 consecutive games as both a linebacker and a fullback.

Bright might have been an even better teacher than a football player, as he received numerous awards as a teacher and principal at Edmonton’s D.S. MacKenzie Junior High before he passed away in 1983 at age 53.

But what kind of numbers could Bright have produced in the NFL? His popularity might have been remarkable because of his ability and his personality. Imagine the Chris Berman-esque possibilities for a nickname: Johnny “Star” Bright, Johnny “Incredibly” Bright or even Johnny “Light” Bright.

Even in high school, Bright was known for being extremely confident and always able to back it up.

“He was good at everything, and not just good, but really good, and he knew it,” said Tom Jehl, former Central quarterback and Bright’s friend. “What was so neat about him was he knew how to put you down and build himself up in the neatest ways. No matter how he said it, it was with a big smile and it was a challenge. Everybody loved the guy.”

After leading college football in total yardage as a sophomore at Drake, Bright went out for the basketball team. In his first interview, when asked how he thought he’d do, Bright replied with a straight face, “I’m not a football player, I’m a basketball player.”

Oh, the NFL would have loved Johnny Bright. Almost as much as Fort Wayne did.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. E-mail Blake Sebring at bsebring@news-sentinel.com.