DRAKE'S JOHNNY BRIGHT
IN 1952, THE LAST time Washington State and Oklahoma State played each other in football, the Cougars were called WSC and the Cowboys were called Oklahoma A&M. That wasn’t the only difference between now and then. Only four black players – all Cougars -- were on the field that day. And they were on high alert because of an ugly, race-based episode involving the Cowboys the season before.
For sports fan of that bygone era, the phrase “The Bright Incident” needs no explanation. It was the focus of a national uproar in October 1951, when Drake University of Iowa played at Oklahoma A&M. Drake was led by All-American quarterback Johnny Bright, who was black. In the game's first three plays, Bright was victimized by three blatantly dirty hits to the head. Mind you, this was an era before face masks.
All three times, Bright had handed the ball off and was way outside the action when he was hit. One of these hits broke his jaw.
And it was caught on film. The Des Moines Register ran a series of photos the next day chronicling the vicious, unsportsmanlike shots Bright absorbed. The photos won the two photographers a Pulitzer Prize and sent shivers down the spines of black ballplayers whose teams would be traveling into the south.
Bill Holmes was a junior end for WSU in 1952, when the Cougs headed to Stillwater for a late-November game. He and classmate Howard McCants had broken the color line in Cougar football two seasons before when head coach Forest Evasheski lured them to the Palouse from Detroit. Since then, two more black players, Duke Washington of Pasco and Rudy Brooks of Hayward, Calif., had joined the Cougs.
Holmes told Cougfan.com in an interview a decade ago that he, McCants, Washington and Brooks were concerned about going into Stillwater because of what had happened to Bright the season before.
As it turned out, Holmes said, the Cowboys were perfect gentlemen throughout the game. There were no dirty hits or even nasty comments, Holmes remembered. In fact, he said, the Oklahoma State players were helping him off the ground at the end of plays “I don’t ever remember being treated so well by an opponent,” he said.
The Cougars won the game 9-7.
• The Bright Incident happened just two weeks after the Cowboys had come to Spokane to play the Cougars in the first-ever meeting between the schools. WSC won 27-13.
• After The Bright Incident, neither Oklahoma State nor the Missouri Valley Conference would apologize for what happened, prompting Drake and Bradley to leave the conference. OSU sent a formal apology to Drake in 2005.
• Bright died in 1983, at age 53, of massive heart attack. After a Hall of Fame pro career with Edmonton in the Canadian Football League, Bright remained in Canada and became a school principal and administrator. The stadium at Drake is named in his honor.
• The Cougars’ trip to Stillwater in 1952 was via air, in an Alaska Airlines DC-4, one of the classic old prop planes. The 1,760-mile journey required a re-fueling stop along the way.
• Duke Washington wasn’t the first African-American player for the Cougs, but he still made headlines. In 1954, when WSC traveled to Austin to play Texas, he became the first-ever black athlete to set foot in Memorial Stadium. His 73-yard TD run generated a standing ovation from the Texas student body. To learn more about the fascinating story surrounding that game, head to the CF.C archives: Duke Washington broke barriers.