At first glance, the photos appear to tell the whole story. Here is Drake halfback/quarterback Johnny Bright,the first African-American Heisman front-runner, handing the ball to a teammate. Bright turns away from the action and stands in the upper-left-hand corner of the frame, watching the play unfold. And here comes Wilbanks Smith, the Oklahoma A&M defensive tackle, bearing down on the defenseless Bright. Smith launches himself, both feet off the ground and forearm first, at Bright’s face.
As a result, Bright was knocked unconscious, his jaw shattered. The frame-by-frame series from the Des Moines Register not only won the photo journalists—John Robinson and Don Ultang—a Pulitzer Prize in 1952, it also altered the landscape of college football. Smith’s attack on Bright led to the innovation of the facemask, the fragmentation of an entire football conference, and marked the beginning of the end of segregation on the gridiron. It just might be the most important play in the history of the game.
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For decades, historians and journalists have speculated about Smith’s role in the attack. Was he set up by his coach, a Southerner named Jennings Bryan Whitworth, who, according to some sources, urged his team to, “Get that nigger”? Was it pure strategy to take out Drake University’s only superstar? Did Smith act alone, and if so, what motivated him?
These are some of the questions I float on the phone, trying to overcome the silence on the other end. Wilbanks Smith has already said he’s not particularly in the mood to revisit the affair, having been vilified by everyone from the New York Times to the Des Moines Register for over six decades. I half expect him to hang up on me.
Finally, he chuckles.
“The reason you don’t understand is that the whole story’s never been told.”
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J.B. Whitworth arrived in Stillwater in 1950 with a Deep South swagger and a mandate to put Oklahoma A&M football on the national map. He had been the force behind a vicious University of Georgia defense in the years following World War II and folks at Oklahoma A&M admired—and feared—the hardened stare of the man whose only creed seemed to be to hit “everything that wears the other color shirts.”
On the one hand, the new coach of the Aggies had a bonanza on his hands. For the first time in its history, Oklahoma A&M had a charter plane to fly the team around the country, games scheduled for national television, and a financial commitment from the university administration to compete in big-time college athletics.
On the other hand, the Aggies were stuck in a lousy conference—the Missouri Valley—and no matter how much money the university put on the table, the bigger, badder, Big Seven (which included the University of Oklahoma) denied membership to the Aggies. To make matters worse, some of the small fish from the MVC— schools like Detroit Mercy and Tulsa, which could barely field a two-platoon football team— were beating up on Oklahoma A&M just as their counterparts down the highway in Norman were becoming a national powerhouse.
Whitworth promised to change all that. He was a self-proclaimed Southern gentleman with a reputation that would get him voted Sportsman of the Year by the Oklahoma City Quarterbacks Club in 1952. Whitworth chided his defense for not being tough, especially defensive tackle Wilbanks Smith, a big Okie from Mangum who had not been aggressive enough for his coach’s taste.
Whitworth’s second year at A&M got off to an abysmal start. The Aggies lost their first three non-conference games before throttling their conference foes, the Wichita State Shockers. But coming into week five, the big story in football was not the resurgence of Whitworth’s Aggies, but the brilliance of tiny Drake College’s Johnny Bright, who dominated not only the Missouri Valley Conference but all of college football.
Bright starred as a halfback/quarterback hybrid in the old-school “single wing” formation. Basically, Drake’s entire offense consisted in snapping the ball to Bright, who either ran, passed, or gave up the ball to a pulling lineman or fullback. For the most part, it worked. Bright was so dominant that he became the first college football player to pass and rush for over 1,000 yards in a season. A couple of weeks before the trip down to Stillwater, Bright had run all over Iowa State, compiling 261 yards and four touchdowns before being pulled for the entire second half. The mayor of Des Moines proclaimed a “Johnny Bright Day.” The Tulsa Daily World described him as “the flashy Negro scooter.” Other players described him as “invincible.”
Bright was an early Heisman Trophy front-runner during the first few weeks of 1951, leading the nation in rushing. The major obstacle to the honor appeared to be his race: No African-American had won college football’s most coveted prize. Coming into Stillwater on October 20, 1951, Bright knew he would face an embittered and vicious defense. He didn’t know, however, that he would become a turning point in the history of race relations, not just in Oklahoma, but in the world of college sports.
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In fact, Bright had been to Stillwater only two years earlier, in 1949, and called the Cowboys “some of the cleanest and best sportsmen” he had faced. He was allowed to ride to Stillwater on a train with his white teammates, stayed at a hotel in Guthrie, and played the game without incident. Jim Lookabaugh, the Aggies’ coach at the time, sensed a historical moment in the making. He remarked that Bright, the first black athlete to play football in Stillwater, “should be treated fairly.”
Paul Morrison, the Drake sports information director at the time, told me that Bright “was just another ballplayer in 1949.” In 1951, though, he was “a marked man and Wilbanks Smith was the designated hitter.”
Some white football teams had decided to take on integration by dishing out punishment on the field—some of it legal and some of it not. Before Drake came to Stillwater, an ugly but little-known incident took place in Tulsa in 1950. The University of San Francisco Dons—a team with a couple of black players—came to town to face the Golden Hurricane. USF brought the nation’s leading rusher, Ollie Matson, to Skelly Stadium only to see him openly assaulted by Tulsa’s players. “I got hit with everything,” Matson said later. “Fists, elbows, knees. I finished the game with two black eyes, a bloody nose, and my face puffed up like a pound cake. I scored three touchdowns and they were all called back.”
But something was shifting with the dawn of a new decade. Although the Civil Rights movement had begun, things were to get considerably worse before they got better. In the early 1950s, the Missouri Valley Conference was split between integrated Midwestern teams like Drake and Bradley, and Southern, segregated ones like Tulsa and Oklahoma A&M. By this time, it had already become clear that the doctrine of white supremacy—very much ensconced at traditional football powers like Alabama and Oklahoma— was not going to win national championships for much longer. Underdog teams like Drake, which quickly integrated following World War II, leveled the playing field. Up-and-coming teams like Oregon and UCLA also integrated, leaving Southern teams with a dilemma: either integrate or withdraw from the national scene to form a regional football subculture.
At the same time, a few students from nearby Langston (an all-black college at the time) were enrolling for classes at Oklahoma A&M. The tension was everywhere—from the barbershop to the gridiron—and integration was the talk of the town. Wilbanks Smith, however, did his best to ignore it. “I was there to play football,” he told me. “I barely paid attention to the rest of it.”
Things got ugly for Bright before he ever touched the turf on Lewis Field that October Saturday. His second time in Stillwater, Bright was denied lodging on campus or in a hotel (he stayed with a local black minister). The Stillwater daily paper called him a “marked man.” Rumors swirled among the student population that Bright would be carted off the field. Anticipating a story bigger than the game itself, the Des Moines Register sent down the photojournalists Robinson and Ultang with a new-fangled technology that basically allowed them to film the game, frame by frame, with a camera.
It was only when they got back to Iowa did they realize what had unfolded. Bright had been attacked repeatedly by Smith, but, remarkably, stayed in the game long enough to throw a game-tying touchdown pass with a broken jaw. Finally, Bright was carted off the field after being mauled in a scrum. “I didn’t deliver the hit that finally sent him out,” Smith said. “I was somewhere else on the field when I saw him go down for good.”
The fallout was swift and dramatic. When it became clear that neither Coach Whitworth nor the Oklahoma A&M administration would take any disciplinary action against Smith, Drake lodged a formal protest to the Missouri Valley Conference. Articles in Life and the New York Times denounced the “mugging” of one of college football’s brightest stars. Finally, Drake withdrew from the conference and severed all athletic relations with Oklahoma A&M when the MVC also declined to take action.
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Why did Wilbanks Smith—whose senior year high school yearbook photo evinces a young man with a goofy smile and a bowtie—attack Johnny Bright? While most historians are quick to point to the heated racial climate of the time, Smith, who has barely spoken a word to the media in six decades, is adamant that Bright’s race had nothing to do with it. There was an animosity between Drake and A&M that had started in 1950, when one of the Cowboys was attacked on Drake’s home turf in Des Moines.
“After that, I made up my mind. I didn’t talk to anyone—none of the coaches or the players—about what I would do,” he said. It began with the kickoff. Smith went straight for the kicker and knocked him down. Then, he centered his revenge on Bright. His hits, Smith says, were perfectly legal. Smith described the NCAA’s rules on forearm hits at the time. “You had to grab your jersey and then have your arm no more than six inches from your chest when you hit.” Smith urges me to look at the photos again. That’s exactly what he’s doing.
Most of the case that Smith’s attack was racially motivated stems from Whitworth’s—not Smith’s—statements. Whitworth admitted to the Tulsa Daily World that the prospect of facing a black player made his team “mentally perturbed.” But when pressed after the attack, the coach claimed Smith’s innocence. “I want people to look at this boy’s record. He’s not the dirty type of player. He just lost his head for a few minutes. If anything, Smith has never been aggressive enough.” The Daily O’Collegian agreed, stating that Smith, A&M’s top lineman, was “unjustly ridiculed” over the Bright incident.
After the Johnny Bright Incident became a national scandal, Smith became an unwitting hero to many in Stillwater. “A professor actually approached me and said that a bunch of people were raising money to build a statue of me on campus,” he told me.
The Daily O’Collegian was inundated by letters of support for Smith. “Football isn’t a tea party,” read one. It’s hard to say how much of the defensiveness was part an insular football culture—one that still survives today—and how much whas generated by racial panic.
Smith admits he wasn’t the wisest of students. “I wrestled, I played football, and occasionally went to class. I was there to play, period,” he said. He wasn’t, however, a racist. “My father was county commissioner [in Greer County, Oklahoma]. During World War II, we went to churches in the black community. He built roads with [black people] and we pulled cotton, side by side. Later, in the Army, I played with lots of black players. A few of them thought I was evil, but I never had anything against them.”
Wilbanks Smith is now 82 years old, a retired engineer and military vet. He lives in rural Arkansas and, according to his high school alumni webpage, spends his time trout fishing, bird watching, and playing piano duets. He speaks slowly, choosing his words carefully. He laughs easily but admits that he spent years feeling “angry” about how he was portrayed in the media.
When I ask him why he never tried to set the record straight, he says that he obeyed a code of honor that he had learned by reading about medieval knights and military heroes. “I thought the rules were the rules, and you had to obey.”
“You won’t believe this,” he says, “but early in my high school career, I reached out and grabbed another player’s ankle on a block. I got called for a 10-yard penalty—holding. After that, even through the rest of my high school years, four years in college, and two years playing football in the Army, never, ever got called for anything more than offsides.”
Although Smith still thinks he was innocent of any malice that day in 1951, he is not content with what he sees on television today. “There’s no excuse for any hits to the head. I’m a big proponent of banning all head contact.”
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Johnny Bright played just one more game in 1951 and finished fifth in Heisman voting. He had a shot at an NFL career with the Philadelphia Eagles, where he was a first-round pick, but turned down a contract in order to play in Canada. After a few years in Calgary, he became a fixture with the Edmonton Eskimos, eventually becoming the Canadian Football League’s all-time leading rusher. Bright was approached by NFL teams several times, but he was wary about going back south at a time when teams were integrating. “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,” he said later.
Like many blacks, he felt welcome in Canada and stayed after his retirement in 1964, becoming a school administrator and minor politician before an untimely death during a routine knee operation in 1983. Today he is remembered as a hero who found a haven from racism in Alberta. It is said—although Smith remains mum on the topic—that Bright’s old nemesis sent flowers to Edmonton for the funeral.
If all evidence points to J.B. Whitworth as the biggest villain of the Johnny Bright Incident, it may serve as a bit of poetic justice that Whitworth is probably best remembered as one of the biggest coaching flops in history. After a few mediocre seasons in Stillwater, he went back to his native Alabama, where he took charge of the Crimson Tide.
After going 4–24–2 in three years, he was fired and replaced by Paul “Bear” Bryant. The Bleacher Report recently featured Coach Whitworth in a slideshow called “Do Not Hire: The Worst College Football Hires in History.”
Originally published in This Land Vol. 3, Issue 22. Nov. 15 2012.