Documentary debuting at Johnny Bright school chronicles namesake's journey

A documentary regarding the racism faced by African-American athletes who came to Canada will make its Edmonton debut at Johnny Bright school. Bright, an Eskimo legend, was one of those very players.

'The story about race and sports isn’t talked about, and it’s something we wanted to get after with this film'

Executive Producer Bill Armstrong's new documentary tells the story of American football players who travelled to Canada to play the game free from racism. 2:15

An elementary school may seem like an odd place to hold a film debut but on Thursday night, Gridiron Underground — a documentary about African-American athletes who chose to play in Canada — will do just that when it's unveiled at Johnny Bright School.

Bright played for the Edmonton Eskimos for 12 years and became a CFL legend. The reason that Bright came to play in Edmonton however, is a dark one. 

I think the white football establishment couldn't stomach the thought of a black man winning their trophy.- Bill Armstrong

"He was a shoe-in to win the Heisman Trophy in 1951 and there were rumours just before a game in Stillwater, Oklahoma that there was a bounty on his head," said Bill Armstrong, the executive producer of the film. 

"I think the white football establishment couldn't stomach the thought of a black man winning their trophy. They tried to remove them from the game with brutal hits and they succeeded."


An Oklahoma defensive tackle named Wilbanks Smith broke Bright's jaw with a late hit.During the game Des Moines Register photographer Don Ultang took a series of photos that showed Bright being targeted.

The photos would eventually win a Pulitzer Prize.

After the end of his collegiate career, Bright was the first-round draft pick for the Philadelphia Eagles but, afraid for his life, turned it down and moved to Canada. He played for both the Stampeders and the Eskimos. 

The rest, as they say, is history and Bright ended up being one of the most decorated CFL players ever. In 2006, TSN named him as the 19th best player in the modern era of the league.

Bright died at 53 in 1982 after working as a principal and teacher in Edmonton's D.S. Mackenzie Junior High School and Hillcrest Junior High School.

In 2010 the Johnny Bright School in the Rutherford neighbourhood was named in his honour. 

Johnny Bright was one of the best CFL players in the history of the league. (Wikipedia commons)

The story of Bright along with other African-American athletes — such as Bernie Custis — who made their way to Canada, is chronicled in Armstrong's documentary.

Armstrong said they wanted to tell a story that hasn't yet been told.

"The story about race and sports isn't talked about, and it's something we wanted to get after with this film," said Armstrong.

He added the fact the film will make it's Edmonton debut at the school named for the CFL legend, leaves him almost speechless. 

"It's very fulfilling for me because the epicentre of the film is really in Hamilton and Edmonton," said Armstrong.

"We feel like we're kind of home again."

Thursday's screening is private. 

About the Author

Mack Lamoureux

Mack Lamoureux is a reporter with CBC Edmonton. He's a lover of strange and odd stories. He counts writing about himself in the third person among his least favourite things to do. mack.lamoureux@cbc.ca, @macklamoureux

With files from Radio Active