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Without Rules

The Untold Story of the Johnny Bright Incident

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Posted: Thursday, October 18, 2012 8:34 pm

Don’t go looking for Wilbanks Smith. No one else has.

It’s not that Wilbanks wants to be found. Or that he has reasons to stay hidden. It’s just that no one wants to stand face-to-face with the white man who broke a black man’s jaw during a football game more than 60 years ago.

The jury of public opinion has been out on Wilbanks for decades now — he’s probably a racist. His actions changed college football forever.

On a summer afternoon, the perceived racist sits alone at the dining room table inside his home in Heber Springs, Ark. The custom-built white house is completely hidden by trees. There is no mailbox out front. No house numbers.

He looks out two sliding glass doors to a handful of bird feeders and a worn path to the river. He puts on a pair of reading glasses and leafs through an encyclopedia.

“See that one?” he asks, pointing to a picture in his book. “I used to hunt them when I was a kid. Now the idea of shooting a quail just upsets me.”

Wilbanks laughs and turns another page. The lines around his mouth tighten and his eyes glow. It’s the kind of smile that takes him back. For Wilbanks, birds are a lot like memories.

At his dining room table, he can sit and watch them, remark at their organic beauty and track them in his book. But when he slides open the door, they’ll fly away. Close enough to touch, but not to hold. The reflection in the glass door reveals the deep lines and spots on his face, paired with ragged, caullosed hands. Inside the body of this 82-year-old man is the heart of a kid who smashed his forearms into oil tanks to toughen them up in post-Depression, small-town Oklahoma.

If you do end up looking for Wilbanks, he would love to have you. He’ll pour you a glass of iced tea and tell you stories: sneaking pitchers of beer inside suitcases into his college dorm; camping with the family in Tennessee; watching his wife, Joanne, painting in this living room. But that last one is tricky.

Joanne hasn’t been home for more than a year now. Wilbanks misses his best friend. He’d rather not talk about waiting for the miracle cure that might never come. Alzheimer’s forced him to drop Joanne off at a nursing home two miles from home.

But Wilbanks would love to tell you about what happened on Oct. 21, 1951, in Stillwater, when Oklahoma A&M College played Drake University.

He’s never going to apologize for breaking Johnny Bright’s jaw.

He’s still angry no one has ever asked for his side of the story.

He’s not a racist.

Wilbanks launched his forearm into Bright’s jaw in the first minutes of the game. Bright, Drake’s star quarterback, handed the ball off to a Bulldog tailback, then spun around to the right, watching the play develop.

Wilbanks, a defensive lineman for what was then Oklahoma A&M College, went on a beeline for Bright, in the days before facemasks were mandatory.

The hit was captured on film by Des Moines Register photographer Don Ultang in six sequential photographs. The pictures ran across the front page the next morning: “Bright’s Jaw Broken, Drake Streak Ends.”

Soon after, the photos ran on the cover of Life magazine, and the New York Times picked up the story. They called it “one of the ugliest racial incidents in college sports history.” The photographs won Ultang and fellow Register photographer John Robinson the Pulitzer Prize.

Drake demanded that A&M apologize for the incident, but administrators in Stillwater kept silent. A&M coach J.B. Whitworth said publicly that the hit was illegal, but did not suspend Wilbanks. Drake eventually dropped out of the Missouri Valley Conference in protest of the Aggies’ unwillingness to take any action.

In 2005, Oklahoma State President David Schmidly issued OSU’s first apology to Drake for the incident. The conflict was officially resolved between the two schools.

But hidden in the Ozarks more than 60 years later, the man who slugged Johnny Bright is angry.

“Part of that story is not really being told,” Wilbanks said. “I want you to think about what I add on.”

Call Wilbanks a ladies man if you’d like. He won’t deny it.

In the fall of 1951, he was a captain for the A&M football team. Wilbanks was a poster boy for 1950s college football – blue eyes, brown hair and a chiseled jaw that matched his physique. He was the jock in the letterman jacket who walked to class with the pretty girls. He smoked cigarettes, because everyone did, and he didn’t care much for books or studying.

“I enjoyed the women folks just fine,” Wilbanks laughed. “I’ll kind of let that one swing.”

Wilbanks was a two-sport athlete. He got a scholarship to play football in Stillwater after lettering four years at Mangum High School in southwest Oklahoma, but found a place on the wrestling team after pinning his friends in the athlete’s dorm hall. By his junior year, he was the starting heavyweight.

“I was strictly a no-good, sweating jock,” Wilbanks said. “Pure and simple.”

His roommate was wide receiver George Wooden. He called Wilbanks a “great guy” who kept mostly to himslef. Wilbanks’ dedication to athletics defined his work ethic.

Before the Drake game, Wilbanks was extra motivated for this Missouri Valley Conference matchup. He wanted revenge. Contrary to popular belief, it had nothing to do with Johnny Bright.

One year prior, A&M and Drake met in Des Moines, Iowa. Wilbanks said in that game, a Drake player had injured an Aggie player in what he described as a “dirty play.”

“I didn’t tell anybody on the team, nothing at all,” Wilbanks said. “I promised I would get payback when we played them next year.”

Drake kicked off to start the game in 1951. Wilbanks located that same Bulldog player in question, whose name he couldn’t recall, and exacted his revenge. Wilbanks reached his arm across his own jersey, clutched the fabric, and sent his forearm directly into the the player’s clavicle.

“The other guy I hit, I put everything that I could into it,” Wilbanks said. “I was the idiot to think that I was supposed to be fighting like a knight at the round table … The reason it irritates me is that is a white guy hitting a white guy. I hit Johnny Bright with exactly the same hit. That was the white guy hitting the black guy. It certainly got a different result in the coverage.”

Newspaper columnists called Bright the Great Negro Flash. He was an All-American at Drake, a private university in Des Moines, and a leading candidate for the Heisman Trophy. The Bulldogs were 5-0, on the cusp of a conference title, when his jaw was broken.

“Johnny was a tremendous athlete and a tremendous person,” said Bill Coldiron, a Drake offensive lineman from 1950-1953 who still lives in Des Moines. “I remember him saying, the first game I ever played on the varsity with him after the first play, ‘OK guys, we’re all veterans now, let’s go get it done.’ ”

Paul Morrison, 95, has worked in Drake Athletics for more than 65 years. He came back to work as a volunteer the day after he retired. Bright was the best football player he’s ever seen suit up in Bulldog blue.

“I don’t know how you can put a finger on what made him great,” Morrison said. “He had outstanding athletic ability, of course. Besides that, a really good personality.”

After a successful career playing in the Canadian Football League, Bright died in 1983 of a heart attack during a knee surgery in Edmonton. He was immortalized in Drake history when the university named its football field after him in 2006. He remains an icon in the athletic department.

When new recruits for the football team arrive on campus, they learn about the Bright incident and how the Drake quarterback threw a touchdown on the Bulldogs’ next offensive possession.

Wilbanks and the Aggies remembered Bright a little differently.

“Coach Whitworth built up this story that Bright was kind of a prima donna type,” said Wooden, an A&M teammate. “When he didn’t carry the ball, he didn’t move out of his tracks. He just stood there. We considered that not being a team player.”

During the 1950 matchup, a year before the Bright incident, Wilbanks said he tackled Bright out of bounds with a clean, legal hit.

“I got up, and was actually going to help him get up, and Bright just laid there,” Wilbanks said. “And here come the people with the trolley, with the stretcher to carry him out. And you know he wasn’t hurt because the first time that they got the ball again, here he shows up. I thought that was an insult because he was not supporting his team.”

So when Wilbanks saw Bright that day in Stillwater, standing outside the play watching his tailback sprint downfield with the ball, he interpreted it as poor sportsmanship.

“He stood back and put his hands on his hips, and I had already kind of slowed down,” Wilbanks said. “But for some reason, when he put his hands on his hips, I figured I would go over and reintroduce myself.”

It was a split-second decision changed the course of college football history.

About four days a week at 6 a.m., Wilbanks walks through the door of the Smoke House restaurant in Heber Springs. He sits at the same booth and orders the same breakfast from the same waitress: scrambled eggs, two slices of wheat toast and three tomato slices.

“I think they throw in the tomato for free,” he said, laying down three $1 bills for the tip.

Wilbanks’ sunrise stops at the Smoke House are one part of his daily routine. For more than 50 years, his wife, Joanne, joined him there. That was before he carried her into a nursing home.

The first time Wilbanks met Joanne was just months after the Bright incident. A date and a dance at the Student Union were the roots of their relationship and they married soon after graduation.

At Fort Benning, Ga., Wilbanks played football for the military base with a number of former collegiate stars. In Illinois and Tennessee, Joanne taught art classes while Wilbanks worked in sales for Exxon Mobil. In Arkansas, they found peace after Joanne designed their retirement home, room by room, furniture included. For years, Heber Springs was their favorite vacation spot. Now, it was home.

When they weren’t working, Wilbanks and Joanne were road warriors, traveling to state parks and open spaces. They were avid bird watchers.

“I don’t think there’s any reason behind it other than the beauty, patterns and the activities,” Wilbanks said. “You feel like the birds are a part of your family … they show off during mating season. Some of those moves are fantastic.”

During their retirement years, on muggy Arkansas summer afternoons, Joanne would sit in their home and paint pictures of birds while Wilbanks made art labels on their computer. Joanne didn’t sell many paintings, but she liked displaying them at the local gallery in Heber Springs.

In truth, Wilbanks didn’t become a bird watcher because he loved it. He did it because he loved her.

But in the the early 2000s, Joanne began to change. She would ask Wilbanks a question, and he would respond. Five minutes later, she would ask the same question again. Over the next seven years, the Alzheimer’s progressed.

The summer before Joanne entered the nursing home, her symptoms made it unsafe for her to drive. So Wilbanks drove Joanne to an old campground the Smith family vacationed near when Laurel and Doug were kids.

In a back corner of the park was a large gravel lot. Once there, Wilbanks would switch places with Joanne and buckle her into the driver’s seat. She’d take the wheel and envision the road trips she and Wilbanks took together, looking for the next bird in their encyclopedia.

“We’d just drive in circles,” Wilbanks said. “She was trying to believe that she didn’t have a problem.”

In the weeks following the Bright incident, Wilbanks received a letter in his mailbox addressed to "No. 72 USA." It was one of more than 1,000 he received from across the nation following what became known as “The Johnny Bright Incident.” People didn’t even have to know Wilbanks’ name to send him hate mail. That’s how notorious he had become.

The immediate general consensus in the media was that the hit was an act of racism, perpetrated through Wilbanks, or on orders from the A&M coaching staff. Wilbanks has always maintained neither were true.

“On the day after, when the first headline hit, I thought that immediately they would correct that within a day or two,” Wilbanks said. “Because you know good and well the kicker – that he was going to spread the word on the other hit.”

That never happened.

Weeks and months passed, and the letters continued to flow in: half condemning Wilbanks as a racist and the other pleading for him to run for office in Louisiana. Wilbanks never responded to one letter or alerted the administration at A&M.

“It took me years to realize how foolish I had been,” Wilbanks said. “There were threats to kill me.”

George Wooden, his roommate at the time, watched as Wilbanks took the criticism. After about two days of opening the letters, Willbanks quit looking at them all together. That’s when Wooden started reading them.

They scared him.

“I know that it hurt him deeply,” Wooden said. “He had one letter that indicated something was going to happen to him … He led the team out on the field the next game and stumbled to the ground. My thought, being right behind him, was that he had been shot, but he got right back up. It was a scary situation.”

A&M continued its silence and the tension went unresolved. Newspaper reporters gave Wilbanks the opportunity to apologize through the years. His response was simply, “It was not a racial incident.”

“I have nothing to apologize for,” Wilbanks said. “That’s been my position all the way through. If I really didn’t do something, why would I ever say that I did?”

Oklahoma State’s 2005 letter of apology to Drake, deeming Wilbanks’ actions unnaceptable, didn’t resolve his role in the incident. It made it worse.

“I could just never understand why they would do it,” Wilbanks said. “I didn’t know what they were apologizing for. Nothing’s changed. I was disappointed all the way down the line, and maybe I was expecting too much.”

When Drake named its field after Bright in 2006, reports surfaced that there was a bouquet of flowers sent to the Bright family from Wilbanks. No one confirmed the story with him.

“I never sent flowers,” he said. “I didn’t do it.”

Here’s why Wilbanks believes he doesn’t need to apologize. He adamantly denies being a racist. But it’s a little more complicated than that. Oklahoma’s racial history is far from spotless.

In 1921, a black neighborhood in Oklahoma’s second largest city was burned to the ground in what became known as the Tulsa Race Riot. Hate-fueled white Oklahomans killed nearly 300 black Tulsa residents.

But in small-town Oklahoma, like Wilbanks’ home town of Mangum, race relations were different than that of the larger cities within the state and in the Deep South.

Bob Darcy taught political science at Oklahoma State from 1977 to 2010. He has extensively researched the racial history of Oklahoma.

“From everything that I can tell, the people in Oklahoma – the white people got along with the black people,” Darcy said. “There really wasn’t much by the way of racial friction in Oklahoma. They had some instances, like the Tulsa Race Riot. There were lynchings in Oklahoma. There was segregation. There was Jim Crow. But it wasn’t rooted in the same kind of demographic, socio-economic situation as it was in the former states of the Confederacy … The racism in Oklahoma was a formality more than a product of the society. The white population wasn’t particularly interested in race as an issue.”

A&M integrated in 1949, but traditional Southern values had their place in Stillwater, especially on the football field. In the week leading up to the game against Drake in 1951, the A&M coaching staff took verbal shots at Bright during practice.

“At one time, I do believe I heard Coach Whitworth say, ‘We’ve got to get his black ass out of here,’ ” said Bruce Gilmore, an A&M player who was on the field during the Bright incident and now lives in Tulsa. “I think I heard something of that effect once or twice. I knew he was a big southerner, so I never thought anything about it.”

In a 1999 TNT special that documented the story behind Pulitzer Prize-winning photographs, Drake tailback Gene Macomber said he heard barbershop rumblings in town before kickoff that Bright wasn’t expected to finish the game.

Lane Demas is a professor at Central Michigan University who specializes in African-American integration and the racial history of college athletics in 20th century America. In 2010, he wrote “Integrating the Gridiron: Black Civil Rights and American College Football.” It documented the Bright incident, as well as a number of other complex issues.

“We do have substantial evidence that Stillwater was a difficult place for black players to visit in 1951 and that conditions were ripe for a racially charged incident to take place,” Demas said. “For many fans at the time – as well as some officials at Drake, Bradley and other Missouri Valley Conference schools – the Bright incident was an indication that Oklahoma A&M College was embracing a more Southern-type response to the prospect of racially integrated higher education and football.”

Wilbanks defended his intentions by saying he’s never been a racist. He said that as a young boy in Mangum, he picked cotton with black members of the community when the farmers went to war. Throughout his professional career, he worked for multiple black employers.

Those who knew the Bright incident best had varying opinions on Wilbanks’ intentions when he slammed his forearm into Bright’s jaw.

Wilbanks: “I don’t even know why you would consider it a racial thing.”

Wooden, an A&M teammate: “That big magazine tried to make it a racial incident. It was not a racial incident. It would have been the same thing if he had been white. He was a prima donna athlete, and the coaches told us to see how tough he was.”

Eugene Aldridge, an A&M teammate who lives in Duncan: “He’s not a racist. I was more of a racist than he was … I’ve come a long way, and I’m glad I have changed.”

Morrison, Drake’s unofficial historian, who attended the game: “I don’t think people really thought it was a racial incident at all. It was because John was Drake football.”

Coldiron, Bright’s teammate: “I don’t think it would happen unless he fully intended to do it. It possibly could be racial; with John being the first black athlete in A&M’s stadium … I just feel that he was a marked man.”

Johnny Bright, in an interview with the Des Moines Tribune: “There’s no way it couldn’t have been racially motivated."

The first time Wilbanks Smith saw a 1951 NCAA football rules book, it was on the dining room table in his Heber Springs home in 2012.

In his era of college football, coaches were the ultimate authority on rules. Wilbanks was certain his hit on Bright was completely legal. He practiced his forearm shivers by smashing them into oil tanks while working as a roustabout in Louisiana during summers away from Stillwater.

As long as he was holding on to his jersey at chest level and didn’t lock hands, he was told the forearm shiver was a legal hit. And one of the most effective places to hit someone was right above the shoulder blade, coming down with force.

“You were just told or shown – that’s really just how the coaches handled it,” Wilbanks said. “Other teams were taught the same things from what I was aware of. Because I would sit there across the line and we would just beat the thump out of each other.”

Everyone had stories of getting clobbered.

“Back then, when you threw an elbow in a guy’s face, it was a penalty,” said Gilmore, an A&M teammate. “That doesn’t keep it from happening a dozen times in a game. And it wasn’t just against the quarterback; it was against any and everybody … that was just part of the game.”

Gilmore, Wilbanks’ teammate, was playing tailback in practice once when he was slammed in the face.

“My nose was bleeding so much, I had blood all over my face,” Gilmore said. “When I opened my eyes, I couldn’t see anything because there was a bunch of blood there.”

But Coldiron, Bright’s teammate, said that wasn’t how the Bulldogs played. Yes, there were injuries, but nothing like what happened to Bright.

“I had never seen that done before. Of course, there were some viscious hits,” Coldiron said. “We did not have a book of rules. We kind of went by what the coaches said, but unsportsmanlike play was never coached.”

But Wilbanks remains adamant. He only did what coaches had taught him. But when he opened up the yellowing pages of the 1951 NCAA rules book and went to Page 35, Rule 9, Section 1, Article 2, his attitude might have changed.

No player shall meet an opponent with the knee, strike any part of an opponent’s person with locked hands, forearm, elbow or upper arm, or strike an opponent’s head, neck or face …

For the first time in 60 years, Wilbanks began to doubt whether his hit on Bright was legal.

“I think that is not as clear as I wanted it to be,” Wilbanks said.

The Bright incident changed the course of history for A&M, Drake and college football across the country.

Since dropping out of the Missouri Valley Conference, Drake has never returned to Division I football. A&M became Oklahoma State University in 1957 and the football team left the Missouri Valley for the Big Eight conference in 1960.

Nationally, college football rules adapted to the violence that occurred on Oct. 20, 1951. Stricter enforcement of personal foul penalties were to be handed out and could include suspension. The introduction to the 1952 NCAA record book:

In an effort to discourage rough play and make it more costly, ejection from the game has become mandatory in cases of flagrant personal fouls … The appeal, as well as the stronger suspension rule, resulted from the celebrated Johnny Bright and Kazmaier incidents.

“Albeit one of many, this was a key event that helped prompt the NCAA to assert more control over the game,” said Demas, the CMU professor who has researched the history of college football for more than 10 years. “There is also some evidence, although unclear, that it also contributed to the NCAA’s mandate on helmet face guards.”

It also was one of many incidents on the football field that helped to shed light on racial inequality. There was no Jackie Robinson who broke the color line in college football; it was a series of events.

Even if Wilbanks’ hit was not racially fueled, it became part of the movement toward accepting black athletes on the football field. The iconic photographs and the media’s perception of the event might have skewed what actually took place to advance the cause.

“In many ways the success of the postwar Civil Rights Movement was all about dramatizing and visualizing the injustice of segregation,” Demas said. “And that meant capturing images of it and having those images circulate around the world. Whether it was pictures of lunch counter sit-ins in Atlanta or pictures of black children sprayed by water cannons in Birmingham – they captured sympathy from around the world.

“Similarly for many readers, the Bright photos seemed to catalog and depict the stiff resistance to black college football players and the unique challenges they faced.”

It took Wilbanks years to realize his actions may have helped in some way. But 61 years later, it’s still difficult to accept it and move on.

“It took me a long time before I could smile about it. But now I can,” Wilbanks said. “I think it was a tool their organizations used, and it was very effective.”

Birds are a lot like memories. Just look at the paintings inside Wilbanks’ closet. In the latter stages of Joanne’s Alzheimer’s, she wouldn’t sell her work, so a handful of watercolor paintings were hung on the walls, and the rest of the birds were stored away.

Weeks before she had a stroke-like attack in August 2010, leaving her immobile, unable to speak or recognize her friends and family, Joanne was entranced by color – whether it was the burning red breast of the cardinal on the feeder outside the sliding glass window, or the carpet fibers on the floor.

“She had gotten to where she spent hours by herself back in her bedroom staring at the different colors,” Wilbanks said. “For some reason, I just accepted that was happening.”

Wilbanks tries to visit her every day, but it’s often unsuccessful. Joanne’s medication causes her to sleep during most afternoons. But when she is awake, Wilbanks pushes her wheelchair to a courtyard outside the facility so she can see the colors of an Arkansas summer afternoon – the same colors she spread on canvas just a few years ago.

Joanne’s words are slurred mumbles that quietly slip from her pursed mouth. Wilbanks chooses to believe she remembers who he is. When he squeezes her hands, rubs her feet and sings a soft melody, he believes she knows him, loves him.

But when she does respond, when she squeezes his hand back or stares into his blue eyes, it hurts. There are some days when it might be better that she’s asleep when Wilbanks visits.

“It’s really difficult,” Wilbanks said. “I’m really agitated more when she starts smiling and all this because you feel like the real her is just a little bit back. Why can’t we make this next little transition? That is frustrating.”

Wilbanks understands where he is in life. He understands that at 82 years old, the window of physical health that allows him freedom is closing. Wilbanks makes sure to check in with his doctor regularly, and as of today, faces no imminent risks that could limit him. He can drive, hold intelligent conversation and does some minimal yard work. That keeps him going.

But for the past two years, he has put off plans because of Joanne. He knows he can’t wait forever until modern medicine finds a cure. He’s waited seven years already. He might not have seven more.

After 61 years, Wilbanks still wants to correct his legacy, fill in the holes left out from the Johnny Bright Incident. He understands that an older generation might have made up its mind about him, and a new generation might not care what happened 61 years ago.

But Wilbanks doesn’t want his grandson to grow up in a world where Grandpa is a villain. And he doesn’t want to give up his own dreams.

“I have a whole bunch that I feel guilty about,” Wilbanks said. “I really do need to be on the road. I’ll work around it someday. I’m to the point in time where I’ve got all these people who are my really good friends who are still around. They’re not really going to last much longer.”

Wilbanks wants to see the great sand cranes in Nebraska. He wants to visit the remaining national parks that he and Joanne had yet to cross off their list. He wants to see his best friend, George Wooden, in California. He wants to live.

Birds, like memories, always come back. Wilbanks will hold on to them forever.

His last attempt at fixing his legacy was letting a college reporter into his house for some iced tea when no one else wanted to step inside the world of a perceived racist.

“I would rather that whole event would just disappear, because as far as legacy is concerned, mine is ruined,” Wilbanks said. “I don’t know what else to do.”

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