All-time Great CFL running Backs: Johnny Bright

All-time Great CFL running Backs: Johnny Bright
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Johnny Bright: a CFL great

I love the history of pro football, and I love the CFL. Which is why in the past on the 99 Yards website CFL pages we have looked at some of the greats of the game. So far, we have looked back at a variety of special teams players, defensive superstars and quarterbacks. (See end of article).

But what about the workhorses? The men ploughing an offensive furrow on the ground? I thought it might be fun to look back at some of the great CFL names in that area of the game. After all, UK based NFL fans with a love of the history of the game can tell you plenty about men like Walter Payton, Barry Sanders, Jim Brown, Marion Motley, Marshall Faulk, Emmitt Smith and so many more.

Well I am here to tell UK based gridiron fans that the 3 down game has a pantheon of its own. That started out with the Saskatchewan Rouhgriders legend George Reed. Now it is time to move on to another past superstar, the Edmonton Elks (then Eskimos) star Johnny Bright.

Before the CFL – ‘The Johnny Bright Incident’

Before he moved to the CFL, Johnny Bright had been making a name for himself in college football with the Drake Bulldogs.

From 1949 the Bulldogs had been coached by Warren Gaer. Who had utilised the skills of Bright as a featured halfback/passer. Bright led the nation in total offence in both 1949 and 1950. He was only the second Africa-American athlete to do so. The team had gone 12-4-2 off the back of that.

In 1951, the team were 5-0 when they headed into Oklahoma to play Oklahoma A&M (now OSU). Bright was an early Heisman Trophy front-runner during the first few weeks of 1951, leading the nation in rushing.

In Oklahoma however Bright was injured after a series of cheap shots that most people believed to be racially motivated.

In what amounted to on field assault, Bright was knocked out cold three times in the first seven minutes of the game. Eventually he would leave with a broken jaw.

The last laugh

The events of the final attack were captured on camera by photographers from the Des Moines Register. Who would go on to win a Pulitzer prize for this work.

What became known as the ‘Johnny Bright Incident‘ would be buried by OSU. That is, until 2005 when they officially apologized for what had happened to Bright to Drake.

The attack on Bright led to the development of the face-masked helmet, greater integration, and the shifting of a football conference. Not to mention, the NCAA added a mandatory suspension for anyone striking another player with his forearms, elbows or locked hands.

Johnny Bright played just one more game in 1951 and finished fifth in Heisman voting. He would go on to turn down an offer from the Philadelphia Eagles as their first round pick. Instead becoming a legend in the 3 Down game. Bright had the last laugh. Because if A&M though they were stopping him that day, in the long run they were entirely wrong.

Johnny Bright: Part of a Dynasty

Bright started his career with the Calgary Stampeders, but he is best remembered as a member of the Edmonton Eskimos of the 1950s.

Bright played quarterback, fullback and linebacker for the Stamps between 1952 and 1954. As a rookie Bright gave a glimpse of what was to come. He ran for 815 yards on 144 carries and was named a Western All-Star (there were no All-Canadian All-Stars until 1962).

However, in 1954 he injured his shoulders and Calgary released him. Calgary’s loss would go on to be Edmonton’s gain.

In Bright’s first three seasons in Edmonton, (1954-1956), the Esks created a Dynasty winning three straight Grey Cup titles. Fitted into the Edmonton offense, Bright’s production rose to 643 yards in 1955 and 573 yards in 1956. Not exactly spectacular, but he was making a solid contribution alongside the likes of Jackie Parker, Normie Kwong and Rollie Miles.

During the 1956 championship game, Bright set a Grey Cup single-game record with 169 rushing yards. That record stood for 57 years before Korey Sheets racked up 197 yards in 2013.

A dominant half decade

From 1957 onwards Bright moved into another gear. From 1957-1961 he recorded 5 straight 1000+ yard rushing seasons. Over a 16 game season his lowest return in this period came in 1960 when he ran for ‘just’ 1260 yards.

He had a career-high 1,722 rushing yards in 1958, then the CFL single-season record. And still the Elks single-season record today. In 1959, Bright led the CFL in rushing yards for the third straight year (1,340 yards) and was named the CFL’s Most Outstanding Player 

In fact he ran for 1,679, 1,722, 1,340, 1,260 and 1,350 yards respectively over those seasons. That five year period saw him have 1,273 carries for 7,351 yards (5.77ypc) & 57 touchdowns. His 9,966 career yards are still an Elks record.

Eventually injuries and accumulated playing time slowed Bright down. But by then he had more than made his mark. For that half decade he was the most dominant running back in the CFL.

Johnny Bright: The awards

Bright won plenty of accolades for his performances in college and in the pro game. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame and the Canadian Football Hall of Fame.

His 10,909 career rushing yards underpinned being selected All-Western at Running Back in 1952 and from 1957-1961.

As well as holding the Edmonton career rushing record, he also holds franchise marks for: Most rushing yards in a season: 1,722 (1958), Most 100-yard games in a career: 36, and Most 100-yard games in a season: 9 (1957). All of which led to him being elected to the Elks Wall of Honour and he is a member of the Alberta Sports Hall of Fame.

Beyond the running backs

Special teams players we have looked at have included kickers Paul OsbaldistonLui PassagliaBob Cameron and Dave Cutler. As well as legendary returners Michael “Pinball” Clemons and Henry ‘Gizmo’ Williams. 

On the quarterbacking front we have looked at the likes of Damon AllenRon LancasterTom WilkinsonTracy HamTom ClementsDieter Brock and Sam Etcheverry.

Not to mention defensive superstars such as Wayne HarrisWillie PlessAngelo MoscaDickie HarrisNorm FieldgateJim Corrigall, and Bill Baker.

Players make the game and great players make up part of the rich fabric of the history fo the game. So if you want to know more why not pick some out and take a look?

Banner Image: Johnny Bright with Edmonton. Image from

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