by Mike Chapman
When Johnny Bright strolled onto the cozy Drake University campus in the fall of 1948, no one could have realized what was in store for the Des Moines college in particular, and the game of football in general. After his three-year varsity career wound up in 1951, Bright left a legacy of achievement that may never be matched at any college.
The dynamic, athletic young man from Indiana had it all, including a name that lent itself to visions of grandeur. And it is sad that today very few Iowa football fans even know who Johnny Bright was and what he once meant to Drake University and to the state as a whole.
Bright was born on June 11, 1930, in Fort Wayne, Indiana. His mother raised Johnny, his three brothers and a sister basically by herself, and times were tough. They lived in an old house with cracks in the walls that allowed the freezing air to seep into the rooms in the winter.
Young Bright starred in football, basketball, track and field and even softball while attending Central High School. He was a hard-hitting defensive player and offensive whirlwind in football and, though just five feet and ten inches tall, was able to dunk a basketball. In track, Bright was a terrific sprinter and a record-setting pole vaulter. He was an overpowering pitcher in softball and could hit the ball out of the park with ease. He even participated in an after-school boxing program.
Along with his superb athletic skills, Bright had a pleasing personality that made him popular with both his teachers and his classmates. It was an attribute that would serve him well all the rest of his life, especially as he grappled with racism on various levels.
Central High was an Indiana state power in both football and basketball during Bright’s years, and he was the catalyst. His football team made it to the state finals, and so did the basketball team. The track squad was one of the best in the state, as well. After a sensational athletic career, he graduated from high school in 1947 but was largely ignored by college football coaches.
“In this day and age he would have been heavily recruited,” said Paul Morrison, the longtime sports information director at Drake, in 2008, “but 65 years or more ago African-American athletes were not in demand like they are today. Several Big Ten schools, including his home state of Indiana University, had no interest in John.”
Bright enrolled at Michigan State University, but left after only a couple of weeks. He didn’t feel comfortable on the large East Lansing campus and was looking for a smaller school where he thought race and social status would not be an issue. The name Drake kept popping up, so he began to listen to advocates of the private institution, which had an enrollment of just under 5,000 students at the time. Much of the credit for discovering Johnny Bright goes to Russ Cook, Drake’s athletic director, and to Tom Deckard, the track coach. Both of them had Indiana connections and had heard about Bright from friends. In the fall of 1948, Bright and a friend, Ned Brenizer, who also played sports at Central High School, took a train from Fort Wayne to Chicago, and then to Des Moines. It would take a year, but the stage was set for an amazing story.
Freshmen weren’t eligible for varsity competition in 1948, and Bright spent his first year at Drake making the adjustment to college and settling into campus life. But in 1949, he exploded onto the national football scene.