By Tom Tarapacki:
In 1958 the University of Buffalo Bulls football team was invited to play in a post-season bowl game for the first time in the school’s history. However, when UB was informed that the Bulls’ two African-American players could not participate, the team decided turn down the invitation. That team’s story is the subject of an upcoming documentary that was recently previewed by the Mid Day Club.
Local filmmaker Peter Johnson presented parts of “Together We Stand: The Story of the 1958 UB Bulls” for the Mid Day Club. Among those in attendance was Willie Evans, an outstanding running back who was one of the African-American members of the ’58 squad (the other was defensive end Mike Wilson). Evans taught in Buffalo area schools for more than 30 years after his football career was over, and last year was inducted into the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame.
The Bulls enjoyed an outstanding 8-1 season in 1958, capturing the Lambert Trophy given annually to best Division II team in the East. They then were invited to play in a bowl game for the first time, the Tangerine Bowl in Orlando, Florida. Shortly after the Bulls accepted, Tangerine Bowl officials informed Buffalo that the local school district, which operated the stadium, banned integrated games. That meant that Evans and Wilson wouldn’t be allowed to take the field. The team quickly decided to reject the invitation.
That story was largely forgotten until UB’s 2008 squad received the school’s second bowl bid in its 94 years of participating in collegiate football. This time the team accepted an invitation to play in the International Bowl in Toronto on January 3, 2009 following UB’s victory over previously unbeaten Ball State in the MAC Championship Game. Although the Bulls lost to Connecticut, it was a great achievement for UB. It also created a lot of attention for the ’58 squad, which as invited by the school to be a part of the bowl celebration. Many media outlets, including the New York Times and ESPN, featured extensive pieces about the ’58 Bulls.
A 2008 article in the New York Times pointed out that Evans grew up in an integrated neighborhood in Buffalo, and didn’t recall much in the way of racial tensions growing up. He attended a high school in the predominantly Polish part of town, and played basketball and football on 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,” it added. Not being allowed to play because he was black was a concept that was foreign to Evans. “In talking with the fellas, we laugh about it now,” he said. “And we sum it up and say, ‘It was just dumb.'”
Johnson, a 29-year-old Buffalo native who graduated from St. Joe’s Collegiate Institute and the New York Film Academy, decided that the story of the ’58 Bulls was worthy of a documentary. One of his biggest sources of information has been Evans, who has extensive scrapbooks from 1958 and was able to contact many of his former teammates. He showed some of the completed footage to the Mid Day Club, an audience which included Evans and some of his former teammates. Those in attendance were pleased by what they saw, and were looking forward to the completed documentary.
For more than 60 years, the Mid-Day Club has been a meeting place for Buffalo’s legal, business and financial leaders. It is located in the 21st level West Tower of the Liberty Building downtown. For more information go to www.middayclubbuffalo.com.
Image courtesy of UB