In 1958 eight football bowl games were played. Unlike today when even teams with losing records are “invited” to play (and sometimes wind up incurring nothing but debt), fifty-eight years ago the invitation to play in post-season game meant something more than free advertising for a football program.
In 1958 the big names in college sports were not those of 2017. Navy played that New Year’s Day, as did Rice and Drake and Texas A&M Commerce. One of the teams that didn’t play was the University of Buffalo, invited to participate in the Tangerine Bowl due primarily to the powerful running of their star halfback, Willie Evans. It would have been a pleasant break from the Buffalo winter for the players to enjoy the sunshine of Orlando, Florida, but the game was to be played in a stadium owned by the Orlando High School Athletic Association, one of whose rules forbade blacks and whites from playing together.
Willie Evans was black.
According to the story, the coach, Dick Offenhamer, left it up to the team to decide whether or not to play the game without Willie and another black player, a reserve. Offenhamer—not known for his sensitivity or grace—nevertheless let the young men decide. He passed out ballots that required a simple yes or no, but before he had distributed even half of them, the team unanimously said no. Buffalo stayed home: fifty-one years would go by before their next invitation.
Not everything today centers on politics, but there is little doubt that the “great America” to which many of Trump’s supporters wish to return is that America where minorities knew their place, where homosexuals kept to their own kind, where immigrants were sequestered in ghettos, and where women understood that subservience was their lot in life. They don’t understand that the greatness of America lies in the behavior of a football team that day—young men who saw injustice and who, for whatever reason, chose to contest it—three years after Rosa Parks, six years before the Civil Rights Act.
Willie Evans died Friday at the age of 79. The sacrifice the city made for him he returned a hundredfold. Evans later taught in the Buffalo public school system, where he also coached cross-country, tennis, basketball, swimming, and football. He earned a master’s degree in educational administration from Buffalo State College in 1988 and then worked as the director of physical education for the city of Buffalo.
In the first days of the new year 2017, it is hard to imagine someone in the Darwinian and dystopian world of the Trump apologists making the selfless decision that supported Willie Evans; but if they could, it would be a first step in recognizing that bold measures in the name of humanity inspire greatness, not placards preaching hate and vengeance.