OSU’s Damage Control, 55 Years Later

Posted in College Spurts, Gridiron at 4:44 pm by

Oklahoma State President David Schmidly has sent a letter of apology to his Drake counterpart, David Maxwell, expressing regret over Johnny Bright being sucker-punched by Oklahoma A&M’s Willbanks Smith during an October, 1951 football game.

The Oklahoman’s Barry Tramel discusses the incident, along with how it came to be documented.

It almost never happened.

The publicity. The outrage. The scars. The apology.

Only the football gods made it possible for Iowans and Oklahomans, much less all Americans, to know the ugly tale of that day at Lewis Field.

So says Don Ultang, one of the Des Moines Register photographs who won the Pulitzer.

Ultang, long retired and now living in Johnston, Iowa, refutes many of the long-standing legends from the Johnny Bright incident.

First, the Register photographers were not dispatched to Stillwater in anticipation of racial problems. The Register regularly sent photographers to Drake, Iowa and Iowa State football games. Even bought a plane, a Beech Bonanza, with Navy veteran Ultang as pilot, to get to games all over the Midwest.

Ultang said his editors never mentioned the possibility of racial problems in Stillwater. At the game, a friend, Bob Speigel, said he had heard rumors around campus about A&M™s desire to knock Bright from the game.

œWe had no idea what we were getting into, Ultang said.

Thus, the Register cameras were not focused exclusively on Bright. In fact, the initial hit by Wilbanks Smith was captured by Ultang only in the background of the photo.

The photographers routinely stayed only for the first 10 minutes of road football games. Then they would scurry back to the airport, fly back to Des Moines, process their film and make the first-edition deadline for Sunday™s paper.

Ultang and his sidekick, John Robinson, shot the first few minutes and left Lewis Field with no idea of what they had photographed.

œThe football gods wanted us to have this, Ultang said. œIf a lot of things hadn™t been just right, nobody would have known it had happened.

2 responses to “OSU’s Damage Control, 55 Years Later”

  1. shinabek says:

    Re: Johnny Bright

    Schmidley apologized but what about Wilbanks Smith. Brutalizing Johnny Bright must have caused Smith an enormous amount of emotional pain and public humiliation throughout his life. This story goes on and on and to have been the “John Wilkes Booth of athletics” must have made life nearly unbearable.

  2. S.D. Regan says:

    Johnny Bright was my boyhood hero and I still remember when my dad introduced me to him when I was about 5 years old. I was crushed when his collegiate career ended so suddenly due to the racial prejudices of the day. A 2013 study (Annals of Iowa) has shown that Drake University football has never recovered and is one of the few D-I teams that do not give scholarships to the football program. Wilbanks Smith not only ruined Bright’s Heisman Trophy potential, he killed football in Des Moines. This incident still lives into the 21st. Century.

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