A Bond of Brothers: the 1958 Buffalo University Bulls
January is a big month for college football, with 33 bowl games and a national championship on the line. But in the 1950s, before corporate sponsorships and massive television audiences changed the scale of college football, there were only eight bowl games and being selected to play in one was a rare honor.
When the University of Buffalo Bulls finished their 1958 season 8-1, the team was invited to play in the Tangerine Bowl in Orlando, Florida. All of the players — including two African Americans — were justifiably proud.
However, there was one caveat: the Bulls could come to Orlando and face powerful Florida State — but they would have to leave the black players, Willie Evans and Mike Wilson, behind. At the time, the Tangerine Bowl stadium was managed by the Orlando High School Athletic Association, which forbade integrated teams to play in their facility.
Try to imagine for a moment what might have been going on in the minds of the Bulls' football players. Here were young men, many still teenagers, who had spent months together, practiced hard, played hard, and expended every effort to become one of the premier teams in the nation. For the first time in the school's history, a bowl game invitation had arrived — an invitation that validated all of the hard work and sacrifice.
But at what should have been a moment of pure joy and celebration, these jubilant young men were asked to validate something else — institutional racism.
Without hesitation, the players voted unanimously to reject the invitation. Evans would later say that his “teammates drew a line in the sand that I have never forgotten."
One of Evans' white teammates, Gerry Gergley, recently told an Orlando reporter that even though going to the bowl would have been exciting, “It was important for us not to go. These were our teammates and our friends. There was no way we were going to leave them behind."
Last November, Evans told a New York Times reporter that he didn't recall the vote. “Maybe I've blocked it out. You really don't understand how your subconscious works all the time."
Evans did remember reading about the team's decision in the newspaper the following day. “I started reading it and said, 'Damn, this is weird,'" he told the reporter. “I'm saying to myself, Well, I didn't do nothing to these folks."
That bowl officials in 1958 would force such a decision onto these young athletes was reprehensible, but in keeping with the racial mores of the times. On the other hand, the team's response was inspirational. It foreshadowed the growing anger Americans were feeling toward racism that fueled a massive civil rights movement.
Last Fall, fifty-one years later, Orlando community leaders, many of whom were not even born at the time of the Tangerine Bowl incident, saw an ESPN documentary about the Bulls and the racism that prematurely ended their season. Almost immediately city officials launched a plan to make amends.
A committee of area political and business leaders decided to invite the entire 1958 Buffalo team to Orlando for a weekend-long celebration — all expenses paid. And so it happened that 34 members of the original team — a little heavier, perhaps, many with white hair — were honored guests at a University of Central Florida football game. Presented with an award at halftime, they finally received the standing ovation from the fans denied them as young men. “It was a chance to right a wrong," said Gergley.
In the end, the shameful act of bigotry made their friendships grow even stronger. Many of the team members stayed in touch with each other over the years. Evans, now 71, was among those who attended the event; Mike Wilson, however, had passed away. “In talking with the fellahs, we just laugh about it now," Evans said. “And we sum it up and say, 'It was just dumb.'"
For many years America's amateur and professional sports mirrored our segregated society. But sports also provided avenues for change and occasions to advance the cause of equal opportunity when political or social machinations were slow to respond.
The Buffalo Bulls' decision not to validate a racist policy didn't get much attention at the time. But it represented one small step, taken by a very young group of unselfish individuals who knew that the bond of brotherhood they shared was far stronger than the hate that blinded Tangerine Bowl officials in 1958.
Update: RIP: Willie Evans passed away January 4, 2017 at the age of 79.