Friday, May 25, 2012

WHAT A DICK! The Johnny Bright Incident Edition.

When you think of Oklahoma, what comes to mind?  For me it's "that place with a bunch of rednecks with an economy fueled by oil, the Winstar Casino and Toby Keith album residuals." Considering the state was established by a bunch of criminal, racist land thieves, my estimation of the joint shouldn't really come as much of a surprise.  Seriously, had the state not produced the Flaming Lips, I'd say let's call a redo on the Lousiana Purchase and give the thing back to the French.  But for now Oklahoma will eternally be that place teabagging the northern parts of Texas as well as our Big 12 ally, so we must acknowledge its existence.

But they're still a bunch of racists.

For those of you like me, the Johnny Bright Incident was not something I was intimately familiar with;  in fact, I'd never even heard of it until lyle passed the wikipedia entry along to me.  Considering today's college football landscape, it's pretty insane to imagine that once upon a time not too long ago, African Americans playing the game wasn't only rare, it was downright unsanctioned.  It was not uncommon for all white teams to refuse to play against a team with black athletes, even if they had as few as one.  Actually, come to think of it, maybe SMU should've employed the, "forfeit all games against teams with black players" tactic from Death Penalty - June Cometh.  They likely would've come off with a higher winning percentage.  I'll crunch the numbers later...

ANYHOO... the Johnny Bright Incident.  Back in 1951, college football was very different;  in direct correlation to this game, Oklahoma State was still referred to as Oklahoma aggy,  Drake University had a Heisman Trophy candidate on their roster and both teams played in the same Conference.  That Heisman candidate was named Johnny Bright, and he was kind of a badass.  Bright played halfback/quarterback for the Bulldogs and was essential Cam Newton/Vince Young before either of those boys were a glimmer in their daddy's balls.  (Interesting Bright fact:  Upon graduating high school, Bright initially accepted an offer to Michigan State, but later changed his commitment to Drake due to concerns about the MSU program's direction.  That'd be like spurning UT for San Marcos, or Notre Dame for Houston, which actually happened this year.  Actually, maybe that last one was a good call.)  During his time at Drake, Bright led the nation in total offense multiple times and pretty much was the Drake offense, scoring 70% of their points as a senior.  Bright likely would've won the Heisman his senior year, but he was limited during the final three games of the season due to injuries suffered against Okie aggy.

Football players are injured with relative frequency; no matter what Roger Goodell thinks, football is a violent game and will always be that way even with rule changes.  But the events of October 20th, 1951 go far beyond what can reasonably be expected on a football field in the way of injuries.  Consider:  In the first seven minutes of the game, Bright was knocked unconscious... THREE separate times.  That's an average of being concussed once every 2.33 minutes.  And each occurence was at the hands of the same player, an aggy by the miraculously dated name of Wilbanks Smith.  Make no mistake, these were not clean hits as Smith's final shot, an elbow to the chops, broke Bright's jaw.  No matter, Bright would come out a few plays later and complete a 61 yard TD pass.  See what I said about that "kind of a badass" thing?  Unfortunately, though, even the toughest of SOBs would have a difficult time overcoming THREE brain thumps, and Bright would be forced to leave the game later, marking the first time in his career at Drake that he had fewer than 100 yards of total offense.

It's possible that this incident could've gone unnoticed, an aberration in an otherwise normal college football season, were it not for a few minor details.  The most notable?  Okie aggy players later mentioned that coaches had preached in practice that they needed to, "get that (SO not going there, but you can probably fill in the blank)."  Worst of all, the OA scout team player filling Bright's spot was said to have shown another player a knot on his jaw after the final hit and said that Smith had given him the same injury in practice, clearly suggesting that this was all rehearsed well ahead of time.  Contrary to popular belief, Sean Payton was NOT the defensive line coach for the Pokes back then.  Drake and fellow Conference member Bradley would actually withdraw from the Missouri Valley Conference in protest of the incident once it became clear that no action was going to be taken against Wilbanks Smith. Poor form, MVC, which is probably why no one takes that league seriously to this day.

Since that day, the JBI has developed a bit of a legacy for itself, beginning with a Des Moines, Iowa cameraman's photoreel from the that day making the cover of Life magazine and won a Pulitzer Prize. The photos showed that Smith was CLEARLY taking shots at Bright either after plays were over, or when the ball was WELL away. The Incident would also inspire later rule changes related to illegal blocking and the implementation of safer helmets.  And, the story actually has a decent ending for Bright as he put together a nice little career in the Canadian Football League, retiring as the league's all-time leading rusher. (Counterpoint:  Bright was actually selected by the Eagles in the first round of the NFL Draft, but opted to play in Canada because he worried about being the first black player for Philly, a fear surely instilled in him after he was treated, so Smith ruined a Heisman Trophy bid and potential NFL career in one fell swoop.  We aren't officially at "What a dick" time yet, but seriously, Wilbanks, what a dick!")  But clearly there is something screamingly wrong when a black athlete from that era was treated like a Colorado Hotel worker with the misfortune of coming into contact with Kobe Bryant, by a white athlete, the coaching staff was overheard promoting it and not a thing was done to rectify the situation.  

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the Incident?  Bright had actually played in Stillwater two years earlier, becoming the first black athlete to do so, and made it through the game without any injuries.  So why, two years later, would anything like this happen?  Could it be an isolated incident from a particularly racist player?  Could it have been one of the first noted instances of the bounty program and it was just coincidental that the target was black?  Was it just a bunch of Oklahoma rednecks doing Oklahoma redneck things?  When making your decision, consider this final piece of the puzzle:  Oklahoma State eventually recognized the injustice done that day by their player, formally apologizing to Drake University.  The only issue?  They didn't do so until 2005, 54 years after the game was played... and 22 years after Bright's death.  A tiger can't change it's stripes, I guess.  I'm going out on a limb and saying it was the third option.

Seriously, Okie aggy, what a bunch of dicks!

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