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Johnny Bright (African-American)

Bright was born in Fort Wayne, Indiana. In high school, he demonstrated his athletic ability by leading the football team to the city championships and the basketball team to the state championships and by winning numerous medals in different track and field events. He turned this athletic prowess into scholarship offers. However, because he was black, not a single offer came from Indiana universities. He attended Drake University on a track and field scholarship because the university also let him try out for the football and basketball teams. During his first year on the football team, Bright he ran 975 yards and threw 975 more, leading the nation in total offence. After a year of participation in all three sports, Bright decided to concentrate on football.

During his second year, Bright led the nation in offence, this time with 2,400 total yards. Midway through his third season, Bright was again leading the nation in total offence and was a favourite to win the Heisman Trophy as top college football player in the United States. He travelled to Oklahoma for a game. There, after a play was already completed, because he was black, he had his jaw broken by an Oklahoma player. Bright recovered, threw a touchdown on the next play, but then was unable to continue the game. As a result, the NCAA ruled that all players should wear helmets and mouth guards. Also, Bright’s shot at the Heisman was gone.

That year, he was a Philadelphia Eagles first-round draft pick, but he did not want to be the first black player on the Eagles’ roster; that would potentially mean having to deal with racial tensions. Instead, Bright turned down the offer, opting instead to play in the Canadian Football League (CFL). He joined the Calgary Stampeders, but injuries prevented him from making much impact and he was traded to the Edmonton Eskimos. There he joined with Rollie Miles and Normie Kwong to form a dominating back field. He was part of the Eskimos team that won three straight Grey Cup titles in 1954, 1955, and 1956.

In 1957, Bright set the record for most single-season rushing yards in CFL history. In 1959, he was named the CFL’ Most Outstanding Player. In 1969, he was made an Honorary Citizen of Edmonton and an Outstanding Athlete of the Century at Drake University. The following year, he was inducted into the CFL Hall of Fame and into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1984. Following his retirement from football, Bright taught first at Old Scona and Bonnie Doon High School then at D.S. MacKenzie Junior Jigh where he later became principal.

Bright passed away in 1983. The Johnny Bright Memorial Award was announced as a tribute. It is given to both a male and a female student who show outstanding achievement in both academics and athletics.

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