50 years ago: Buffalo players stood against racism Print
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Friday, 14 November 2008 05:57
NCAAF Headline News

 BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) -Willie Evans doesn't know if his mind is failing or whether he's repressed the memories of what happened 50 years ago. For the life of him, Evans is unable to remember the fateful team meeting at which he felt the bite of racism and learned about the power of friendship to overcome it.
If the details have faded, it doesn't matter. When his University at Buffalo teammates retell the story, they can place exactly where Evans was sitting in the classroom when the team unanimously rejected a chance to play in the 1958 Tangerine Bowl, the school's first - and it turns out, only - bowl bid.
``Well, I'm getting old,'' said Evans, a former coach and physical education director for Buffalo schools who turns 71 this month. ``Maybe, I've blocked it out. You really don't understand how your subconscious works all the time or your conscious. But I really draw a blank.''
mbert Cup - awarded to the top small school in the East. The school initially accepted the Tangerine Bowl invitation.
But there proved to be a problem. Not long after the Bulls agreed to play, Tangerine Bowl officials informed Buffalo that the local school district, which operated the host stadium in Orlando, Fla., barred integrated games.
The players were left to decide whether to play without Evans and teammate Mike Wilson - the only two African-Americans on the team.
It was quickly evident which way the players were leaning. The vote was taken before ballots could even be distributed.
``It was, 'Shall we leave the Italians home? Oh my God, really?' There was a lot of anger,'' former offensive tackle Jack Dempsey said. ``We just threw the ballots on the floor and left. It was, 'Let's get out of here and go get a beer.'''
Quarterback Joe Oliverio remembers how infuriated he was.
``They insulted two of our teammates, and we were going to hit them back between the ears by refusing to go without our teammates,'' he said.
History will show that East Texas State defeated Missouri Valley 26-7 in the Tangerine Bowl that year. To the Bulls, they had scored a big victory, too.
back, if we had given in, caved in, gone to the game and won the game, we would've never had the camaraderie we have now. We would've always felt we let our buddies down.''
And Evans was definitely present for that meeting, his teammates said.
``Absolutely, I can picture where he was sitting and Mike Wilson,'' Dempsey said. ``I can remember walking out and players putting their arms around (Evans). ... I can remember it vividly. It wasn't like hearts and flowers. We just walked out, let's get out of here. Screw it.''
For Evans, his first memory of learning of what had happened came a day later, when he picked up the newspaper to find his and Wilson's picture on the front page beneath a headline, ``UB Turns Down Bid To Tangerine Bowl.''
``I started reading it and said, 'Damn, this is weird,''' Evans said.
Evans grew up in an integrated neighborhood in Buffalo, a multiethnic manufacturing city at the time, with a lively downtown core.
Evans doesn't recall much in the way of racial tensions growing up, though he vividly remembers seeing the graphic coverage of Emmett Till's 1955 slaying in Mississippi that helped to mobilize the civil right's movement.
But that occurred in the South, a far-away place for Evans, who was voted student president of his integrated grammar school, and attended a high school in the predominantly Polish part of town.
integrated teams. And when the assistant principal attempted to track down Evans and his friends for cutting class to buy doughnuts at a Polish bakery around the corner, the owner, Ziggy, would let them sneak out the back way to elude being caught.
It wasn't a perfect life. Black men in his neighborhood who had returned from World War II faced barriers to being considered for civil service jobs. And yet Evans hadn't personally experienced such flat-out bigotry until Buffalo got the Tangerine Bowl bid.
The experience affected him personally in some ways, leading Evans to avoid visiting the South for many years despite having many relatives in Virginia and Mississippi.
``It wasn't a grudge. It was an 'I don't care' attitude,'' Evans said. ``I just didn't want to deal with it.''
Wilson, his African-American teammate who was a backup on defense, died several years ago.
It wasn't until the early 1990s, when Buffalo was scheduled to play a game against Central Florida in Orlando, that Evans accepted the team's invitation to make the trip.
Perhaps it's some sort of cosmic karma, but 50 years later the Bulls (6-4) - after years of futility and a stretch in which the school pulled football altogether - are in contention to earn a bowl bid this season. The '58 Bulls get together fairly often and there's talk of another reunion if Buffalo gets a postseason bid.
evenly between African-Americans and whites, is led by a black coach, Turner Gill, and a program headed by a black athletic director, Warde Manuel.
Evans was interviewed on Election Day, hours before the ballots were counted and Barack Obama became the first African-American elected to the presidency. Sitting at his dining room table in a well-appointed condominium in a tony part of the city - just around the corner from where he went to grammar school - Evans reveled in America's transformation.
The opportunity to cast a ballot for Obama outweighed the outcome, Evans said, because what mattered most was that a black man had earned the right to win or lose the race for president.
And that is all Evans and his teammates were asking for all those years ago - the chance to succeed or fail on an even playing field.
``Being confronted with the situation of not being allowed to play because you're black, I'm saying to myself, 'Well, I didn't do nothing to these folks,''' Evans said. ``In talking with the fellas, we laugh about it now. And we sum it up and say, 'It was just dumb. It was just dumb.'''
 

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