Hidden History: A journey that changed football

Black History Month

FORT WAYNE, Ind (WEHT) The journey that changed football forever started with a player from Fort Wayne, Indiana.

He endured brutal, racist attacks on the field and would end up securing protection for generations of future athletes.

“It’s like the racial injustice just comes to life.”

A battleground that still haunts Deanie Bright-Johnson, nearly 70 years later

Nightmares of her Dad, the best college football player in the country, with a broken jaw and zero sympathy from the stands.

“People just, ‘oh that’s just the way it is. That’s the way we play football.’ I mean that’s a terrible, terrible situation.”

Johnny Bright, Drake University’s superstar, had been the first black player ever to step in this stadium.

On this visit, opponent Wilbanks Smith wanted to make sure he’d never come back.

“I was in the press box at the time. And two or three plays, I said, ‘boy they’re really getting after John you know,” said Paul Morrison

“He was watching his teammate run the ball, so he let his guards down just for a moment.”

Then, a devastating blow to his exposed, unprotected face. Moments later, a second strike and then a third. But before his team carried his limp body off the field, he launched a statement 61-yard touchdown pass. Ready to be the face that changed the safety of the game forever.

Roosevelt Barnes remembers what happened, “The best way to retaliate is to be great and that’s a page that you can take from Johnny Bright.”

Johnny Bright’s legend took off in Fort Wayne, Indiana. From Central High School phenom all the way to the Canadian Football Hall of Fame Schools, awards, and stadiums inspired by his name.

“My Dad would say football, sports is the vehicle. His love and his passion was educating people.”

And her Dad comes through for all of us every time we see a football helmet.

Right after the attacks on him in Oklahoma, a national conversation on player safety fired up. The NCAA would soon require all players in the league to wear face masks.

As the discussion grew, the NFL would make the same requirement several years later, making Bright’s impact on this global game undeniable.

“What would your Dad say seeing all the players having face masks today?”

“He would say it’s absolutely amazing. He’d probably have tears in his eyes and say we’ve really made some strides and come a long way.”

Oklahoma State University gave the Bright family a formal apology two decades after he passed away, almost 55 years after the incident.

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(This story was originally published on Feb. 18, 2020)

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