Willie R. Evans, a star running back on the 1958 University at Buffalo team that rejected a Tangerine Bowl invitation because of segregation rules, has died, a spokesman for UB confirmed Thursday.
Mr. Evans, 79, died Wednesday, said John Della Contrada, an associate vice president at UB.
Mr. Evans was one of only two African American players on the UB football team when, in the 1958 season, the team was awarded the Lambert Cup after winning eight out of nine regular season games and was invited to play against Florida State in the 13th annual Tangerine Bowl in Orlando, Fla. Mr. Evans, a starting halfback for the team, and defensive end Mike Wilson were barred from playing with the team in that game because the Orlando High School Athletic Association, leaseholders of Tangerine Bowl Stadium, did not allow blacks and whites to play together on the field.
As a result, the UB team made a unanimous decision not to play in the Tangerine Bowl, which was considered a bold move nearly 60 years ago.
Despite the attention that it attracted at the time and subsequently, Mr. Evans was reserved when recalling the experience decades later.
In a 2009 Buffalo News sports article, Mr. Evans, by then in his early 70s, demurred when for his asked his recollections of UB's 1958 football season. He maintained that his memory wasn't what it used to be and said he did not remember how he felt after learning that he and Wilson were not welcome in Orlando, or much about the team meeting that was held to decide what to do.
"People always ask how I felt, but it was 50 years ago," Mr. Evans said. "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."
Playing in a bowl game under the dictated circumstances, he said, 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. 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," Mr. Evans said.
Nearly a decade before Martin Luther King Jr. led the March on Selma, the team's defiance drew a great deal of media coverage in its day, but eventually receded from the public consciousness. The story was revived 50 years later.
"On the date of the 50th anniversary, Orlando attempted to make amends for their mistake and invited the entire team-- or those that were still living in 2008-- down to Orlando, where UB played against the University of Central Florida. After that, the story was brand new again," said Jay Friedman, UB's assistant athletic director for engagement.
Friedman, also a UB alumnus, began serving in the early 1990s with Mr. Evans on the UB Alumni Association Board of Directors, for which Mr. Evans also served as president.
Mr. Evans also has a UB Alumni Association Legacy Scholarship named in his honor.
"He epitomizes UB and the Alumni Association, and what you would want to see in an alumni," said Jay Friedman, UB's assistant athletic director for engagement, who began serving with Mr. Evans on the UB Alumni Association Board of Directors in the early 1990s.
"He and his wife, Bobbie, volunteered for many events sponsored by the Alumni Association," said Friedman. "They were at every football game, every basketball game. They were constantly on campus, constantly involved and engaged."
When association decided to append a name to its Legacy Scholarship in 2009, it was only fitting that it be Mr. Evans'.
"Having that scholarship in his name, and then to have the ability for people who won that scholarship to actually meet him and understand what the scholarship meant made it that much more impactful," Friedman added.
A Buffalo native, Mr. Evans grew up in Buffalo's Cold Spring neighborhood and, as a child, was known as "Lil Evans." He was a standout athlete at Emerson Vocational High School, where he was All-High in track-and-field. Before graduation, he received a scholarship from Purdue University, but injured his leg while attending Emerson. He had also received a scholarship from UB, but turned it down, married a year after graduating high school and settled into a career as a tailor. Finding that tailoring was not a preferred career for him, Mr. Evans took UB up on its scholarship offer, which had remained on the table.
Mr. Evans finished his career ranked ninth in the school's history in rushing with 1,559 yards. His 6.36 yards-per-carry career average still stands as a school record. He rushed for 530 yards on only 70 carries in 1958 and 620 yards on 92 carries in 1959 to help lead the Bulls to an 8-1 record both seasons.
During his freshman year with the Bulls, he played only 3 minutes and 41 seconds the whole season. As a sophomore, he carried the ball 83 times for 409 yards.
Mr. Evans was named Western New York's outstanding athlete by the Western New York Sportswriters in his senior year, and he was designated most valuable back in both his junior and senior years at UB, in addition to being named outstanding jumper and sprinter at UB for his feats in track and field.
Mr. Evans taught physical education in the Buffalo Public Schools for more than 30 years and remained a committed member of the UB Alumni Association.
Mr. Evans was inducted into the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame in 2009. His other UB honors include the Community Leadership Medal, Distinguished Alumni Award and the Russell J. Gugino Award.
Mr. Evans, along with fellow members of the 1958 football team, received the Chancellor Charles P. Norton Medal, which UB's highest award, in 2009. The Norton medal is presented annually in recognition of an alumnus who has "performed some great thing which is identified with Buffalo…a great civic or political act, a great book, a great work of art, a great scientific achievement or any other thing which, in itself, is truly great and ennobling, and which dignifies the performer and Buffalo in the eyes of the world," according to statement released Thursday.
“The entire UB family is deeply saddened by the passing of Willie Evans,” UB Director of Athletics Allen Greene said in the statement.
Mr. Evans “meant so much to UB, not only as a student-athlete, but as an ambassador of the university and the city he loved. His historical significance to the university will stand as a lasting legacy, one that is intensely personal and genuine. His presence at sporting events will be greatly missed. We extend our condolences to the entire Evans family,” Greene added.
Mr. Evans earned both a bachelor of science degree in physical education and a master's degree in administration from SUNY Buffalo State.
He is survived by his wife of 44 years, the former Roberta "Bobbie" Rozek; three sons, Rodrick, Alan and Neal; two daughters, Rachel and Rebecca; and four sisters, Antoinette Sims, Clara Small, Brenda Kendricks and Paula Evans.
A funeral service is set for noon Saturday in Lincoln Memorial United Methodist Church, 641 Masten Ave.