This is part of a series on the Class of 2021 of the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame. The induction ceremony is Oct. 13 at the Buffalo Niagara Convention Center. For tickets, visit gbshof.com.
The University at Buffalo football team made history in 1958. The Bulls won the Lambert Cup, which was given to the top small-school program in the eastern United States, and they received the program’s first postseason invitation to the Tangerine Bowl.
The Tangerine Bowl committee, however, attached a condition to the invitation to play Florida State: Willie Evans and Mike Wilson could not play for the Bulls because they were Black. The Orlando (Fla.) High School Athletic Association owned the Tangerine Bowl Stadium, and at the time, the OHSAA prohibited integration.
Through a team vote, the Bulls rejected the bid to the Tangerine Bowl. If Evans and Wilson couldn’t go to Florida for a bowl game, then none would go.
UB would not be bowl eligible or invited to another bowl game for 50 years.
The team didn’t unite for just two of their own. It took a stand against racial injustice at a time when it was an incredibly progressive move to do so. In much of the South, water fountains, bathrooms, dining rooms, hotels and schools were segregated, and UB’s decision to boycott the bowl game came four years after the beginning of the American civil rights movement to end institutionalized segregation and discrimination. The push for social justice made its largest impact in the 1960s.
The Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame will honor the 1958 team as one of 13 inductees at its banquet Oct. 13 at the Buffalo Niagara Convention Center.
The motivation of the 1958 UB football team came out of altruism, not out of the need for attention.
“It came from the background of my teammates and the era of which we were born and became teenagers, and attended the university, and its diversity at the time, and through the sport, that’s what we brought with us,” said Joe Oliverio, a North Tonawanda native who was UB’s quarterback in 1958.
“What we were saying is that deciding not to go play the game without our brothers, without our teammates, it didn’t really define us because we were already there, with the character we brought to the university, the character we brought to the team, and our upbringing, everybody had a family and lived with their moms and dads. When we came to the university, we brought those characters and those traits.”
Of the 23 surviving members of the 1958 team, Oliverio was one of nine to attend the announcement of this year’s class in June at Buffalo RiverWorks. He joined Nathan Bliss, David Brogan, Raymond Paolini, Joseph Shifflet, Raymond Skaine, Paul Szymendera, Charles Tyrone and Richard Van Valkenburg.
Oliverio remembers Evans, a running back, being one of the first Black students he saw in an on-campus leadership role. Evans, he said, was president of a fraternity for students who were majoring in physical education, and Evans’ example off the field inspired Oliverio to become a physical education teacher, football coach and baseball coach. Evans was a Buffalo native who became a physical education teacher in the Buffalo Public Schools, and he was a 2009 inductee into the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame. He died in 2017.
The News reported in 2009 that Wilson, a defensive end, had died several years prior; Oliverio said that for years, teammates could not get a hold of Wilson when they organized homecoming get-togethers and team reunions.
“Most of us started our careers, and a lot of us were teachers and became coaches, and we all got married and raised our families and we passed those values and the things we learned at UB and by playing sports and the decisions we made, especially in ’58, carried right through, in our lives,” Oliverio said. “We’ve been friends for 50 years, and now it’s 63 years! We never looked back on it as sour grapes. Every year, we never, ever talk about, ‘I wish we would have done this or done that.’ ”
At the time, the Bulls didn’t realize their stand would be historic. But Oliverio said newspapers in Washington and in New York City wrote about UB’s decision to boycott the game, and the 1958 team has been further chronicled on ESPN, in documentaries and by major news outlets around the world.
“Years later, we realized what it meant and what we did,” Oliverio said. “Standing up for what is right. It’s not hard to do.”
What Oliverio believes persevered through the years wasn’t just the fact that the Bulls took a progressive stand more than 60 years ago. It’s knowing that the friendships and the relationships he and his teammates made through football have endured.
“This is another step of recognition on the fact that we did the right thing at the right time,” Oliverio said. “We’re very proud of our teammates who, by the time we reached the end of the season, they were your friends and your brothers, and that’s the way we felt about our team. Every time somebody honors us or thanks us for what we did, that just makes us even more proud of the moment.”