Skip Sub Menu

Legacy of John Dee Bright

John Dee Bright, known to the Drake community as “Johnny Bright,” was a celebrated 1952 Drake graduate who starred on the football field for the Bulldogs and built a successful career as a committed educator and beloved principal in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. Bright passed away in Edmonton in 1983 at the age of 53.

Naming Bright College in Johnny’s honor pays tribute to his personal and professional qualities—the very qualities Bright College will instill in its learners: grit, resilience, dedication, drive, and civic and professional engagement.

Sadly, a vicious play in Stillwater, Oklahoma, robbed Bright of a certain Heisman Trophy in 1951. Two years previously, Bright had been the first Black football player to play a game at Oklahoma A&M College (now Oklahoma State University). On an early Drake offensive play in the 1951 game, an Oklahoma A&M lineman charged Bright—who did not have the ball—and hit him in the face, breaking Bright’s jaw. To honor his athletic accomplishments, Drake University named the football field at Drake Stadium the Johnny Bright Field in 2006.

Photographs of the incident caused a national outrage and heightened awareness of the racism Black athletes faced. The sequence of images earned Des Moines Register photographers John Robinson and Don Ultang a Pulitzer Prize for Photography in 1952.

Following the assault on Bright in the Oklahoma A&M game, Drake University withdrew from the Missouri Valley Conference after the conference refused to take any action against Oklahoma A&M. Bradley University also left the MVC in solidarity with Drake. President David Schmidly of Oklahoma State University issued a letter of apology for the incident to Drake University in 2005. President Schmidly referred to his team’s behavior as “an ugly mark on Oklahoma State University and college football.”

The NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles drafted Bright with the fifth pick in the first round of the 1952 NFL draft. Bright would have become the Eagles’ first Black player. Due to the likelihood of racist reprisals, Bright chose to take his talents to the Canadian Football League where he became one of Canada’s most accomplished professional football players ever. Bright was inducted into the CFL Hall of Fame in 1970.

Bright used his bachelor’s degree in education from Drake to work as a teacher, coach, and school administrator in Edmonton Public Schools during and after his football career. He coached football at Bonnie Doon High School throughout the 1960s. At the time of his death he was a junior high school principal. The Johnny Bright School, a kindergarten through grade nine school in Edmonton, bears his name.