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Documentary Rekindles Memories

July 15, 1999

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) _ Bill Coldiron was blocking on the first play of the game, so he never saw Johnny Bright get slugged, never saw him go down.

Coldiron did see Bright sprawled on the ground, however, and when the powerfully built halfback did not get up right away, he knew something was wrong.

``We’d seen him take so many hits and he’d be back up and almost be the first one in the huddle,″ Coldiron said, recalling the game played in 1951. ``Then when he didn’t get up, it really shocked me.″

Unbeknownst to his teammates, the Drake star was hit by Oklahoma A&M’s Wilbanks Smith and his jaw was broken, an incident revealed in startling detail in a photo sequence that appeared the next day in The Des Moines Sunday Register.

The photographers who shot it, Don Ultang and John Robinson, won a Pulitzer Prize the following year. Their photos and several others that won Pulitzers are featured in a documentary put together by Turner Network Television.

TNT will show the 90-minute piece, ``Moment of Impact: Stories of the Pulitzer Prize Photographs,″ on Sunday night.

The sequence had an impact because Bright, who led the nation in total offense the two previous years, was one of six blacks playing for Drake in Stillwater, Okla., on that October day in 1951. Oklahoma A&M, now Oklahoma State, had none.

In those days, blacks weren’t welcome in many areas. In Stillwater, Drake’s black players were not allowed to stay in the university’s student union along with the whites. They had to sleep elsewhere the night before the game.

Drake’s fullback, Gene Macomber, recalls in the documentary the atmosphere at A&M.

``I remember the day before the game on campus words to the effect that the black guy would not finish the game,″ Macomber said.

Another compelling angle to the photos was that Bright was attacked on the first play. Had it happened much later, Ultang and Robinson never would have caught it on film.

Technology at the time did not allow photographers to transmit from the stadium. They shot for about 10 minutes, then hopped in Ultang’s single-engine plane and flew back to Des Moines to develop their film.

``I think we were just in the right place at the right time,″ Ultang said.

Back at the paper, unsure of what they had, Ultang checked a negative and could clearly make out Smith’s forearm striking Bright in the jaw. Ultang tells in the documentary of showing the frame to his editor, whose response was, ``What else have you got?″

Turns out they had a lot. The six-frame sequence shows Bright handing off to Macomber on a sweep to the left and then Smith making a beeline for Bright, who is standing near the 30-yard line watching the play. In frame No. 5, Smith is starting to bring his right arm around and in No. 6, both his feet have left the ground as his forearm crashes into Bright’s jaw.

The photos ran across the top of the Sunday Register. Only then did Coldiron and his teammates realize exactly what had happened.

``I played with black athletes all my life,″ said Coldiron, who lives in West Des Moines. ``I didn’t think anybody could be that vicious and do the type of hit he did on Johnny.″

Drake historian Paul Morrison, then the athletic department’s business manager, watched the game from the press box and remembers turning to Register writer Maury White after the play.

``I made the comment, `Boy, they got John,‴ Morrison said. ``Of course, when we got home and saw the next day’s paper, it was picture perfect. But there was no doubt in our minds, mine’s and Maury’s, that they had gone after John.

``The funny thing is, he had played down there two years earlier and as far as I know, there was nothing out of line,″ Morrison said.

Amazingly, Bright stayed in the game for a few more plays and even threw a 61-yard touchdown pass before being helped off the field after tacklers swarmed over him on a run.

Two weeks later, his jaw wired shut, Bright returned to run and pass for 204 yards in a 35-20 victory over Great Lakes Naval Training Station. It was Bright’s final college game. He later played 13 years in the Canadian Football League and died in 1983.

The photos and the fact the Missouri Valley Conference never punished Smith caused such a stir that Drake dropped out of the league for several years. Not long after that, the NCAA made face masks mandatory on helmets.

``Our fans just got so upset with the conference for not taking any official action that we felt we had to do something to satisfy them,″ Morrison said. ``Bradley dropped out in sympathy with us. A lot of people forget that.″

Morrison and Coldiron both said Bright left himself vulnerable because he had a habit of standing and watching a play unfold instead of carrying out his fake. Had Bright been faking, Morrison said, Smith might not have had such a clear shot at him.

But he stood, Smith delivered his blow and Ultang and Robinson captured it for all to see.

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