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How long-overdue justice for Jim Thorpe and Johnny Bright helped level the playing field

After numerous cheap shots, Johnny Bright eventually exited for X-rays during a game against Oklahoma A&M.Bettmann/Bettmann Archive

Johnny Bright, much like Jim Thorpe, was a superb multisport athlete, best known for his dynamic running and passing that made him the NCAA’s No. 1 offensive force for most of his three seasons in the Drake University backfield.

Bright was a powerhouse unlike any the NCAA had seen, chewing up record yardage on the ground and plucking apart defenses with his quick, tricky sidearm passes.

Like Thorpe, a Native American, Bright was also a minority. An African-American, he grew up in Fort Wayne, Ind., oft the target of racism and the Jim Crow laws of the 1940s and ‘50s. Be it for Drake’s out-of-town football or track and field events, it was not uncommon for Bright to be denied a room in the hotel where his white fellow Bulldogs were welcomed.

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Also like Thorpe, whose pair of Olympic gold medals just recently were reinstated after more than a century of International Olympic Committee dillydallying, it was more than a half-century before Bright was issued an apology for the repeated assault he suffered during a game one October afternoon in 1951. That mea culpa by Oklahoma State University, issued in 2005, came more than 20 years after Bright’s death.

The arc of the moral universe is long, Martin Luther King Jr. once famously stated, but it bends toward justice.

For Bright and Thorpe, the bend proved to be excruciatingly slow. Neither lived long enough to know the warm embrace of justice.

Thorpe’s story is far better known. Born on Native American land near Prague, Okla., in 1887, he won both decathlon and pentathlon gold in the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, only to have both medals stripped from him a year later. The IOC declared that his brief stint as a pro baseball player prior to Stockholm violated its then-sacrosanct standard of amateurism.

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It took the IOC until 1982 to amend its 1913 decision, which many viewed as racist, and restore Thorpe as the cochampion in both events. A first step. Then finally, after another four decades of lobbying on his behalf, the IOC on July 14 declared him the one true, rightful champ in both events.

The original silver medalists, a Swede and a Norwegian, rightly were restored the runners-up, and the IOC designated two bronze medalists for each event.

“This is a most exceptional and unique situation,” said IOC president Thomas Bach. The move, he added, was a “gesture of fair play.”

A gesture far overdue. After more than a century of justice deferred, it had become increasingly embarrassing, just how easy it had been to filch something from a defenseless Native American, allowing time and apathy to prevail, forget, scrub from memory.

Jim Thorpe died long before his accomplishments were properly recognized.Associated Press

Thorpe, by the way, died in 1953 and is buried in Jim Thorpe, Pa., some 30 miles northwest of Allentown. He had no connection to the immediate area during his lifetime. He died penniless. It has been widely recounted that his then-third wife, Patricia, sold his remains for the purpose of two small towns, Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk, creating a new town in his name and building a monument in his honor. And so a tourist stop was born.

Repeated efforts to bring Thorpe’s body home for burial in the Sac and Fox Nation territory of Oklahoma have yet to prove successful.

Stillwater, where Bright was brutalized in Drake’s game on Oct. 20, 1951, at then-Oklahoma A&M, is only about 50 miles northwest of where Thorpe was born. It’s unlikely the two ever met.

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Drake was a perfect 5-0 headed into Stillwater and Bright, for a third straight season, led college football in total offense. He had 821 yards rushing, another 528 passing, in the first five games. Across his sophomore and junior years, he rolled up a little less than 4,440 yards in total offense, positioning him as a Heisman favorite headed into the season.

More than 70 years later, not surprisingly, some details of that day conflict. Numerous accounts have it that Bright, targeted for malicious late hits by defensive tackle Wilbanks Smith, was knocked unconscious three times in the opening seven minutes of the first quarter. Today, one concussion ends a player’s day.

Whatever the number of hits or KO’s, Bright got up each time, even unwilling to surrender when the final cheap shot by Smith broke his jaw. Reluctantly, and in great pain, Bright eventually exited for X-rays before the quarter expired.

Years later, a teammate recalled Bright smiling wide to show him how doctors wired his jaw shut, one of his teeth pulled so he could sip meals through a straw for the next few weeks.

No penalty was whistled on any of the hits. The Missouri Valley Conference failed to discipline Smith, the A&M coach, or the school itself, prompting Drake to pull out of the MVC in protest and not return for 20 years.

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A&M won the game, 27-14. Bright, who played fairly ineffectively in the final three Bulldog games with his jaw wired, finished fifth in Heisman balloting.

The one positive: The NCAA, in part because Smith’s jaw-breaking assault was captured in dramatic photos, immediately made faceguards a mandatory part of all helmets, and it also amended its tackling rules. Read: It changed the rulebook on blatant assault.

The photograph of the bludgeoned Bright, first printed in the next day’s Des Moines Register, led to a Pulitzer Prize for photographers Don Ultang and John Robinson. Pregame hype, particularly alleged murmurings on the A&M campus that Bright would be rendered unable to finish the game, had both photographers training their cameras on Bright. The Pulitzer shot caught Bright tipping backward after Smith’s smash to his face, the two players some 7-8 yards behind the Bulldog ball carrier. The hit was late, targeted, and malicious — and believed to be ordered at the request of A&M coach Jennings Whitworth.

Johnny Bright, a star at Drake, was cheap-shotted over his race and his talent.Bettmann/Bettmann Archive

The photo, poignant and disgusting, generated editorial outrage from papers around the country, but little else. Whitworth, dismissing any suggestion of racism, only granted that Smith’s emotions might have run too hot.

Indeed, white hot.

“No way it couldn’t have been racially motivated,” Bright told the Des Moines Register shortly before he died.

Selected fifth in the 1952 NFL Draft by Philadelphia, Bright stood to be the first Black man ever to suit up for the Eagles. One account had it that the Eagles tried to entice him to sign by spreading $100 bills, 10 of them, on a table in front of him. Handsome money at a time when $2,800 a year was considered decent pay in America.

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Bright said no, in part believing he was offered less by the Eagles than if he were white. Other accounts have it that he also was leery of the influx of southern US players entering the NFL. It wasn’t like that tooth yanked in Stillwater ever was going to grow back.

In September 2005, at the urging of Drake president David Maxwell, Oklahoma State president David J. Schmidly finally apologized for the assault on Bright. “An ugly mark,” he wrote, “on Oklahoma State and college football.”

Bright, age 53, died of a heart attack in December 1983, while undergoing surgery in an Edmonton, Alberta, hospital for what was meant to be routine knee surgery.

Unlike Thorpe, Bright lived a comfortable and rewarding life following a lengthy Hall of Fame career in the Canadian Football League, his glory years spent with the Edmonton Eskimos. He stayed in Edmonton, raised his family there, and became a beloved public school teacher and administrator.

Bright once told the Des Moines Register that the thought of what Wilbanks Smith did left him feeling “null and void.”

“The thing has been a great influence on my life,” he said. “My total philosophy of life now is that, whatever a person’s bias and limitation, they deserve respect. Everyone’s entitled to their own beliefs.”

NFL and college training camps are about to open. Football is almost here. Today, players of every race typically are welcomed to a vastly cleaner, more welcoming sports universe.

Justice, long overdue for Thorpe and Bright, helped level the playing field.


Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at kevin.dupont@globe.com.