Standing firm on their beliefs

By Rodney McKissic
Updated: January 3, 2009

Fifty years ago, the Lambert Cup winners stuck with their two African-American teammates and dismissed a Tangerine Bowl bid

Fifty years ago, the Lambert Cup winners stuck with their two African-American teammates and dismissed a Tangerine Bowl bid" Photo courtesy University at Buffalo

BUFFALO– Fifty years ago, the New York Yankees came back from a three-games-to-one deficit to beat the Milwaukee Braves in the World Series. The Baltimore Colts beat the New York Giants in “The Greatest Game Ever Played” to propel pro football to prominence.

But the University of Buffalo may have topped them all by refusing to take the field for what would have been the school’s only appearance in a college football bowl game until this Saturday.

UB won the Lambert Cup that year as the Eastern small-college football champion. In its last five games of the 1958 season, the Bulls scored 204 points and were rated by some as one of the best teams in the East, right alongside Army, Syracuse, Navy, Pittsburgh and West Virginia. By mid-November, UB climbed to as high as 11th in the United Press International small-college rankings and received two first-place votes.

It was enough to attract the attention of the Tangerine Bowl, which extended an invitation. But it came with a catch. The Orlando (Fla.) High School Athletic Association, which operated the Tangerine Bowl Stadium, had a standard rental agreement containing a clause prohibiting mixing of races in sports contests.

The Bulls had two African-Americans on the team, running back Willie Evans and reserve defensive end Mike Wilson, and the team was told it could come only if the two black players stayed home.

The UB team held a meeting in one of the ROTC rooms at Clark Gymnasium to decide what to do. These were the days before the Selma-to-Montgomery march, civil rights legislation and the dream speech by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, but the team needed no such precedence. Before the issue was brought to a vote, it was unanimously decided to reject the bid.

“It was disappointing not to go to the game, but then again it wasn’t,” then-sophomore Paul Szymendera said. “I don’t know if we were aware of what the ramifications of the whole thing were. We just knew that two of our teammates were going to be excluded. To screw these two guys? I don’t think there was as much disappointment as anger.”

Bowl not on radar

Evans is in his early 70s, his hair has turned to white, and he will be the first to tell you his memory isn’t what it used to be. He remembers a lot of things about the University of Buffalo’s 1958 football season, but he doesn’t remember how he felt after learning that he and Wilson were not welcome in Orlando or much at all about the meeting.

“People always ask how I felt, but it was 50 years ago,” said Evans, the team’s star halfback who grew up on Buffalo’s East Side. “I was a contributing factor to the success of the team, and for them to have gone without me, I would have been disappointed. We’ve never discussed the issue over the last 50 years. It’s never come up once. Not at all.”

He also remembered that playing in a bowl game was the furthest thing from his teammates’ minds.

“When we played, it wasn’t a matter of trying to win games to go to a bowl contest,” Evans said. “We played to win, and we figured we would win every game we played. We went out and went about the business of doing that.”

The only loss that season was to Baldwin-Wallace, coached by current Ohio State coach Jim Tressel’s father, Lee, but they used an ineligible player and offered to award the victory to the Bulls. No thanks.

“The games are played and won on the field,” UB coach Dick Offenhamer told The Buffalo Evening News. “You won it, and that’s the way the record stays.”

That was fine with the players, who were just thrilled to be going to a bowl game.

“We never thought we’d go to a bowl game when we were recruited,” said Ray Paolini, who was a junior on the team. “A bowl game? Never thought about it.”

The biggest concern for the players about going to the Tangerine Bowl, stories at that time revealed, was missing time from work. Several had jobs lined up for the Christmas holiday. Evans was a married man working his way through school as an aide at the VA Hospital.

Another player was worried about his studies, saying, “I planned to get some tutoring and spend the extra time grinding away at the books. My marks always slump during the football season.”

Yet another worried about his girl: “I have a date for Christmas Eve, and if I have to cancel it, I’m sunk.”

Offenhamer was as tough as the devil during preseason three-a-days and in-season practices, so a bowl game was a hard-earned vacation for the players. The Tangerine Bowl, which gave its proceeds to Orlando’s Crippled Children’s Guild, extended the invitation before bowl organizers raised the question of Evans and Wilson. This bothered members of the Bulls.

“Someone had to scout us to say that we were entertaining enough to go to Florida or anyplace else to play football,” Szymendera said. “They knew who was on our team. That was a point of aggravation on most of our parts.”

Still, the Tangerine Bowl wanted UB — Evans and Wilson included — and asked for a waiver of the “intermingling of races” clause. The Orlando High School Association never responded.

“Instead, the association said in effect forget the crippled children,” Charley Young of The Buffalo Evening News wrote, “let’s just make sure we don’t have any Negroes playing football in our bowl.”

The Tangerine Bowl committee explored the possibility of playing the game at an alternative site, but UB athletic director Jim Peelle and Offenhamer said that wasn’t acceptable.

“I learned what we felt about each other was true and that there was no phoniness,” Paolini said. “Once they told us that, we were like, ‘To hell with them. If they don’t want Willie and Mike, we don’t want them,’ and it was easy not to go because of that. I was surprised that there was still a racial issue in Florida. Alabama, yes, but Florida? I didn’t realize it was there, and I was shocked.”

There was talk of an invitation to the inaugural Bluegrass Bowl in Louisville, but organizers decided on Florida State and Oklahoma State. The Bulls were also up for consideration for the Sun Bowl, but Hardin- Simmons was paired up with Wyoming.

The Tangerine Bowl — now called the Capital One Bowl — was played as scheduled, with East Texas State defeating Missouri Valley, 26-7.

UB wasn’t the first team to turn down the Tangerine over segregation issues. In 1955, Muddy Waters’ Hillsdale Dales/Chargers team refused to play in the game despite its 9-0 record because game officials prohibited the team’s black players from participating.

And the Tangerine wasn’t the only bowl with segregation issues that year. That same month, a federal court ruled that Louisiana’s law forbidding interracial athletic events was unconstitutional, but a law prohibiting the mixing of spectators remained in effect for the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans.

Ask anyone who was around the program, and they’ll tell you UB’s 1959 team — which also finished 8-1 — was better than the ’58 squad. It even defeated Baldwin-Wallace, and its only loss was the rematch at Bucknell. But the Lambert Cup went to Delaware, and that meant no bowl.

“I still can’t figure out why,” Evans said. “We played a tougher schedule than Delaware.”

Maybe if they had accepted the forfeit win against BaldwinWallace, a more prestigious bowl would have taken the unbeaten Bulls. But no one second- guesses the decision not to attend the Tangerine.

“We did the right thing,” Szymendera said. “You can’t exclude these two fine gentlemen from our team because they were part of our team. They were integral parts of our team, and there wasn’t a difference between Willie and Mike and the rest of us.”

Landscape changed

Fifty years later, college football’s landscape has changed dramatically. In 1966, Morgan State, a historically black college in Baltimore, accepted an invitation to the Tangerine and defeated West Chester, 14-6. The sport became fully integrated in the early 1970s.

UB has an African-American athletic director, coach and defensive coordinator. Coach Turner Gill, one of the first African- Americans to play quarterback in the old Big 8, is a rising star in the profession.

UB’s 50-year wait for another chance to play in a bowl game ended Saturday in Toronto against Connecticut in the International Bowl. The surviving members of the 1958 team — Wilson died several years ago — took part in all the activities leading up to the game with all expenses paid by the university.

“Turner always tells us we’re part of this,” Szymendera said. “He really makes us feel part of the team. It’s a tremendous feeling after all these years.”

Everyone remembers the sacrifices they made.

“I hope my teammates understand something,” said sophomore safety Davonte Shannon. “I hope they understand this game is bigger than them. It’s bigger than the team, bigger than the university and bigger than Buffalo. This is for the 1958 team.”

To give them something to remember.

EDITOR’S NOTE: In Saturday’s International Bowl at the Rogers Centre, UConn defeated Buffalo 38-20.