Bright’s Brilliance Dazzles Football Fanatics
By Jeff Navin // April 21, 2012
SPACE COAST SPORTS HALL OF FAME
BREVARD COUNTY • MERRITT ISLAND, FLORIDA – Leon Bright didn’t believe in fair catches – it didn’t matter if it was high school, college, the Canadian Football League or the National Football League.
“Neon Leon” did believe in exciting play. Just ask any longtime fan of Merritt Island High football.
Bright, a 1974 graduate of Merritt Island High School, will be honored with enshrinement in the Space Coast Sports Hall of Fame. He rushed for 4,036 yards and 77 touchdowns during his three-year career with the Mustangs.
During the 1972 season when Merritt Island won the Class 4A State Championship, Bright scored 24 touchdowns and racked up 146 points as a junior.
Florida State recruited and signed the entire backfield from Merritt Island – quarterback Jimmy Black, Bright and fellow running back Waldo Williams. It might have been the best backfield ever in the history of high school football in Florida.
The Mustangs, guided by Coach Eddie Feely and assistants Gerald Odom, Dwight Thomas, Gerald Hodgin and Lee Mace, went 13-0 and averaged 39.9 points a game. The team also racked up more than 5,000 yards of total offense on the way to winning a state title in what was then Florida’s largest classification for football.
After going 10-0 during the regular season, the Mustangs defeated Winter Park 24-7 and undefeated Hollywood Hills 29-22 to reach the Class 4A title game. Merritt Island then rolled past Tallahassee Leon and legendary coach Gene Cox 40-21 at Doak Campbell Stadium in Leon’s own backyard.
Feely accepted a job after the season to coach Florida State’s freshman team. Odom, the defensive coordinator, was promoted to head coach and he remained in that role until the end of the 1994 season.
“Leon just had great speed and quickness,” Odom said. “He worked awfully hard, and he was a great leader. He also ran track really good.”
Just a few years ago, Bright was named to the Florida High School Athletic Association’s All-Century Team as one of the 33 greatest high school football players in the history of Florida. He was named All-State three years and earned National All-America honors two times.
In three seasons, Bright averaged 11 yards a carry as the Mustangs recorded a 30-3 record.
After graduating from Merritt Island, Bright accepted a football scholarship from FSU. He made an impact right away. He rushed for 105 yards and one touchdown to help the Seminoles defeat Miami 21-14 on the road for their lone victory of the season in a 1-10 campaign. The Hurricanes finished the season with a 6-5 record.
Bright finished the season with 310 yards rushing on 61 carries. He scored two touchdowns. He caught 12 passes for 201 yards and one touchdown. Bright returned three punts for 35 yards and he returned 22 kickoffs for an average of 22.7 yards.
King of kickoffs
One of those kicks went for 100 yards and a touchdown to match a similar effort at Merritt Island. Now, high school players no longer are allowed to return kicks out of the end zone. Bright later repeated the feat in the Canadian Football League.
Bright led Florida State with four touchdowns for 24 points. Only the kicker, Ahmet Askin, scored more points (26) than Bright.
As a sophomore during the 1975 season, Bright rushed for 138 yards on 30 carries in a 17-8 home victory against Utah State in the second week of the season. He also rushed for 102 yards and one touchdown in a 31-20 season-opening loss to Texas Tech on the road. Both of those teams finished the season with 6-5 records. FSU improved to 3-8.
Bright led FSU in rushing with 713 yards on 162 carries. He scored three touchdowns. He also caught 13 passes for 173 yards. Bright returned two punts for seven yards, and he returned four kickoffs for 140 yards and a gaudy 35.0 average.
The 5-foot-9, 175-pound Bright was inactive for the 1976 season at Florida State.
That spring, Bright signed with the British Columbia Lions of the Canadian Football League. He was named the CFL’s Most Outstanding Rookie as the Lions finished the regular season with a 10-6 record, which was good enough for second place in the Western Division. That was the first time the Lions had finished higher than third since 1964. Bright also was a CFL All-Star.
B.C. upset Winnipeg 33-32 at home before being ousted by Edmonton in the Western Division Final.
In 1977, Bright caught 45 passes for 816 yards and seven touchdowns. He fielded 29 punts for 419 yards and an average of 14.4 yards. On kickoff returns, he had 18 for 596 yards and an average of 33.1 yards. One of the kickoffs went for 100 yards and a touchdown. He added 43 yards rushing on six carries.
In 1978, Bright hauled in 52 receptions for 781 yards and two touchdowns. He added 40 punt returns for 498 yards and 18 kickoff returns for 425 yards. Bright rushed for 90 yards and one touchdown on four carries.
In 1979, Bright grabbed 36 catches for 569 yards and three touchdowns. He fielded 21 punts for 319 yards and returned 27 kickoffs for 820 yards and an average of 30.4 yards.
During his final season with the Lions in 1980, Bright had 13 receptions for 204 yards and one touchdown. He returned 47 punts for 790 yards and returned 25 kickoffs for 635 yards.
In 2004, he was named to the Lions’ 50th Anniversary Dream Team.
Bright rushed for 197 yards and two touchdowns on 51 carries for the New York Giants during the 1981 season. He added 28 receptions for 291 yards. Bright returned 52 punts for 410 yards for a 7.9 yard average. He returned 41 kickoffs for 481 yards for a 19.2 yard average.
In 1982 with the Giants, Bright led the NFL in punt returns with an average of 8.8 yards a return. He fielded 37 punts for 325 yards. He also returned four kicks for 72 yards.
During the 1983 season, his last with the Giants, Bright returned 17 punts for 117 yards and average of 6.9 yards a return. On kickoffs, he had 21 returns for 475 yards for a 22.6 yard average.
He joined the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for the final two years of his NFL career. In 1984, he returned 23 punts for 173 yards and an average 7.5 yards a kick. On kickoff returns, he had 16 for for 303 yards and an average of 18.9 yards.
In his last season, Bright returned 12 punts for 124 yards and an average of 10.3 yards a return. He added 11 kickoff returns for 213 yards and an average of 19.4 yards.
Bright, who was an assistant coach at Deltona Trinity Christian this past season, also has been an assistant coach for DeLand High, Atlantic High and Lighthouse Christian Academy. In 2006, he was the head coach for the Daytona Beach Thunder, a now-defunct arena football team.
He also has been the running back coach for the Top Gun Camp.
In his free time, Bright runs the Leon Bright Charitable Foundation. His foundation helps families and under-privileged children.