Friday, January 2, 2009

1958 University of Buffalo Bulls' Stand Against Discrimination

In my research for my blog on Turner Gill, I ran across this story on the 1958 University of Buffalo Bulls football team. I have always been a sucker for stories regarding the stand against things that are adamantly wrong. There was a lot of wrong decades ago against a lot of people (not just black people).

In 1958, the University of Buffalo football team won eight of nine regular-season games and was awarded the Lambert Cup as the best small-school program in the eastern United States. Team co-captains Nick Bottini and Lou Reale received the trophy during a Sunday night broadcast of "The Ed Sullivan Show" and dined that evening in Manhattan's famous Toots Shor's Restaurant.

Days later, the Bulls were invited to face Florida State in the 13th annual Tangerine Bowl in Orlando, Fla. -- still the school's only bowl bid in 102 years of football.

In anticipation of their trip south, players were measured for new sport coats at The Kleinhans Company in downtown Buffalo. But before fabric for the coats ever was cut, the university learned that the team's two African-American players, starting halfback Willie Evans and reserve defensive end Mike Wilson, were not welcome in Orlando.

The Orlando High School Athletic Association, the Tangerine Bowl Stadium's leaseholder, prohibited blacks and whites from playing together. Despite the protestations of the Orlando Elks Lodge, the bowl game's sponsor, the Bulls would be allowed to participate only if Wilson and Evans did not play.

The university and coach Dick Offenhamer left it to the team to decide whether to accept the bid. The players gathered in a basement room of Clark Gymnasium on the Buffalo campus to take a vote. Bottini and Reale held small paper ballots in their hands, but before they could pass them out, the players spontaneously and unanimously rejected the bid.

"We weren't the same team without Willie and Mike," guard Phil Bamford remembers. "Whether they were benchwarmers or stars, we wouldn't have been the same team."

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