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."
The drill was called "Bull in the Ring." You stood in the middle of a circle of teammates in linebacker position, arms up and fists clenched. Coach called a name and someone came running to hit you. You absorbed the blow. Delivered your own. Then he called another name, maybe someone behind you, and you spun and rushed to combat again. And so it went. A dozen hits -- maybe more -- at a spell.
Your hands stung at first. Your breath came in bursts. Then you settled in. Collisions expected, pain the norm. After a while, the hits became your measure -- of what the other guy had, of what there was in you, what reserve you could draw on for the battles to come. Over time what mattered was that you suffered together. Every man had a turn. And as a season of practices wore on, the drill developed into an oath, a pledge to go all-out and a call for the other guy to do the same.
Ask quarterback Joe Oliverio, now 69, what it means to be part of a team and for starters he will stand up on the balls of his feet, in linebacker position, and describe "Bull in the Ring." He'll recall how the drill was brutal and long, and Coach Offenhamer was relentless. He'll say there were times he wanted to run out of the circle and never look back. He'll also say, with a light in his eyes that belongs to the 19-year-old quarterback he once was, that he wouldn't trade the experience, hit after rattling hit, for anything in the world.
Buffalo often began its games with Sweep Right 29. The right tackle pushed forward, both guards pulled wide right, the fullback came hard on the outside shoulder of the left guard, the quarterback pitched the ball to the halfback, and the halfback ran around the corner of the line.
Willie would line up in the backfield for Sweep Right 29 just a step deeper, and a half-step farther to the right, than he did on any other play. He was edging toward the corner of the line. He knew the blocks would be there. He knew his guys up front would open a hole. You practiced for this moment. You were one of 11 moving parts, a critical element in a precise mechanism geared to achieve.
It has been 50 years since '58, but the idea of team for Willie begins by pointing to a newspaper photograph in a wood-bound scrapbook he keeps -- a picture of him coming hard right with the ball tucked under his right arm. This play, this feeling, right here, this is football.
Joe was the first in his family to go to college. He came to UB from North Tonawanda, a suburb between Buffalo and Niagara Falls. His parents were first-generation Italian immigrants. Dad worked in the North Tonawanda paper mill. Mom was a homemaker.
Their neighborhood was white, almost all Italian. Most blacks lived in the city. You played against one another in high school, but you didn't know one another, and what you did know you had heard from aunts and uncles and crusty guys at the barbershop -- suspicious words with old ideas and cruel intentions just below the surface.
University life and Bulls football were revelations. Whites and blacks lived, worked and played together. You brought a black friend from the dorms home to dinner with the folks. You ran sprints alongside a black teammate from downtown one night and an Irish farm boy the next, and when one of you tired the other pushed him on. Things felt simple and bright. Connections came easily. You were from the neighborhood, but with each passing day, you felt like a citizen of some bigger place.
The men on Purdy Street in downtown Buffalo called him "Little Evans." He was 8 or 9 years old at the time. They were mostly soldiers home from World War II, many of whom had become firemen and police officers, or shop and club owners in Buffalo. They helped look out for him, something his mother and father appreciated, what with nine other kids at home. Checked Willie's schoolwork. Tossed the ball around. Introduced him to politics and to opera. Taught him how to carry himself. Told him anything was possible.
You believed in yourself because they believed in you, because you were never just you but always a part of the community, of the world they had seen out there and were helping to build back here. They sat up on their porches in the evenings, and you felt them watching as you walked past and you knew you had to be something in this life.
Willie bought his first tailored suit in high school -- blue pinstripes, $65 cash -- and became a tailor for a year between graduating high school and entering UB. He wasn't fast, but he cut a straight line. He was good with pockets, with details. He loved the smell of wool wrapped in bolts. A suit was a statement. A man who wore a suit gave a damn, commanded respect.
He played basketball and ran track in those days. He came to the University of Buffalo having played only one year of high school football. The first time Offenhamer called for a "dive," he dove headfirst for the ground. As a freshman he played a total of 3 minutes and 41 seconds. This is a number he remembers. Not "three or four minutes," not "barely at all." Three minutes and 41 seconds, the precisely measured distance between being on the outside looking in and being in the thick of things, between settling and wanting more.
Long before there was a vote in a cramped room in the basement at Clark Gym, there were scrimmages that lasted until after dark. "We hit each other so hard that games were nothing by comparison," defensive tackle Jack "Bear" Dempsey recalls. "You felt like King Kong out there because you knew the guy on the other side of the line hadn't worked as hard as you'd worked."
There were blocking sessions on "the log" -- a barely padded telephone pole hanging on a chain from an A-frame -- and tackling sessions on a cement-weighted dummy. "Every day you'd sweat, bleed, get beat-up together," halfback Paul Szymendera says. "What he was going through, you were going through."
There was an upset of Harvard in the mud and a trip home to find 2,000 fans waiting to welcome them. "I think we started to believe in ourselves that night," Bamford says.
In Week 4, there was a painful loss to Baldwin-Wallace, coached by Jim Tressel's father, Lee. "Woke us up," guard Stan Kowalski remembers. "Didn't play a close game the rest of the way."
There was Kenny Born quick-kicking a ball into the backside of his blocker and Coach running the clip back, over and over again, during the Monday film session.
There was the night the Mohawk Airlines pilot came over the loudspeaker on a bumpy flight over Lake Erie to pray for a safe landing: "Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name ..."
There was the surreal day Elizabeth Taylor christened the new UB dorms by presenting the team with a bull that her publicist had purchased from a local farmer.
There were times when a buddy needed a lift home after a late night at the Moonglow, when a newbie needed his tie tied straight before training table at the Saturn Club, when you had to steer a guy through physiology homework or persuade a guy not to quit the squad, no matter what that SOB Offenhamer was putting them through.
And there was from the beginning a sense they were building something together, putting Buffalo football on the map. "There were no real stars," halfback Dick Van Valkenburgh says. "There was no first string, no second string. You pulled for each other."
There is no story here without the vote after the Tangerine Bowl bid. The 1958 University of Buffalo Bulls are remarkable because of those few moments in that cramped space when they said that racial prejudice is simply wrong, because while so much of the country was deeply and often violently dedicated to what divides us, they acted on behalf of our fundamental connection.
But the vote didn't define them. It didn't unite them. It testified to who they already were. It was the logical extension of the sacrifices they made for and beside each other, the sum of the routines and anecdotes that made up their lives together.
Joe felt as if he had been hit between the eyes. One minute the Buffalo Evening News is making plans to send a band down to Orlando with the team, the next minute somebody is telling Offenhamer and Buffalo chancellor Clifford Furnas to leave Mike and Willie at home. He couldn't get his mind around it.
Who or what is the Orlando High School Athletic Association? This is 1958, for god sakes -- the modern world. Who thinks this way anymore? He had seen separate white and black drinking fountains in newspaper photos and heard stories of bus boycotts in Alabama, but all that had seemed a world away. Now the abstract idea of racism is real and immediate. Now the victims are people you know. Now the whole of a toxic tradition is sitting on your front porch.
First, you feel the heartbreak. Then comes the rage. They judge you and your teammates? They hit you like this? You want to hit them back. You start to think of the association, of the insidious spirit of all of American prejudice, as next week's opponent. You fall back on something the coaches have repeated a thousand times: Take down the man in front of you. Deliver a blow. Everybody does that and we'll be fine.
It was barely a meeting. There was no discussion. Somebody said, "We're not going." Somebody else said, "Damn right." And they stood together, nodded, put their arms around one another the way men do. And then they walked out. And though they had walked in to that room full of hurt and fear and anger, if they'd had to put a word on what they felt in the moments just after the vote, Joe thinks it would have been "love."
Willie doesn't remember the meeting. He must have been there, but he has no memory of it.
He remembers looking at a picture of Emmett Till, his face swollen and bludgeoned beyond belief, in Jet magazine in 1955. (Till, from Chicago, was murdered for the "crime" of flirting with a white woman while visiting Mississippi.) He and some friends from high school huddled around it at the corner store on Ferry Street and saw a teenager just like them, saw a world they wanted nothing to do with. He remembers being harassed by two Buffalo police officers for carrying a miniature souvenir baseball bat when he was a boy of 11 or 12. It was a toy, but they called it "a club." They took him for a ride just to scare him. He remembers his mother, who was born in Mississippi, never wanting to talk about her life before she came north to Buffalo. After he had been drafted by the Buffalo Bills in the early summer of 1960, he remembers a Bills cornerback, an Ole Miss grad, refusing to speak to him or to any of the black players in training camp. He remembers applying for his first job as a physical education teacher and having members of the school board ask him straight out who he thought he was, trying to land a white man's job. He remembers leaving a job in life insurance a few years later and coming back to teaching because the company wouldn't allow blacks to advance to management positions. But he doesn't remember the meeting in the basement of Clark Gymnasium.
You want to keep some things sacred. You don't want to think about some nobody who has never even met you, some ignorant fool clinging to dumb ideas, dictating your time, altering your experience with this team. You appreciate the way your teammates responded in rejecting the bowl bid. You do. You feel that affection and commitment, and it brings you true joy even now. But to hell with the idea that what you had with them had to be put to a vote at all. To hell with the idea that your status, and Mike's, was ever, even for an instant, anything other than integral. You were a football player on a team that went 8-1 in 1958, and 8-1 again the next year. You were a football player on a team that won the Lambert Cup. You wear a replica pin of the trophy on your lapel to every home game. The vote isn't your story. The game you didn't play is nothing next to the games you did play, nothing next to the feeling when the the gun went off and your effort, and the effort of every man on your side, was enough to win.
On Homecoming Weekend last month, the university invited the '58 Bulls back for a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the vote. They gathered at midfield and were acknowledged before a sellout crowd. Willie tossed the coin to begin the game. They stood as a group, the sun shining on their faces, some of them wearing their old letterman sweaters.
It was a familiar routine. A number of them had come together on the Friday night before homecoming at a local bar called Brunner's every year since 1960. They never talked about the Tangerine Bowl or the vote. They talked about work -- many of them became coaches after attending UB -- and about retirement now. They talked about their wives and what their kids were up to, and about how the Bills were looking. They wondered what had happened to the teammates, including Mike Wilson, who they could not track down over the years. They reminisced about surviving "the log." They told tales of the Harvard game. They imagined themselves young again. "Everything takes you back. If you're a football player, when were you happiest? You were happiest playing football," Bamford says. "These guys, these are my buddies and my brothers."
When Gordy Bukaty got a tumor, Jack Dempsey took him to the hospital and visted regularly until the day he died. They stood for weddings. They went to one another's parties. They grabbed a beer from time to time. They stayed connected. The ones who moved away wrote letters. The ones who didn't like to write got regular calls from Dempsey. When Joe's wife, Elaine, passed away six years ago, his phone didn't stop ringing. "I was never alone," he says.
Joe's father used to tell him the most valuable thing a man had was his reputation. Once you lose it, you can't get it back. Take pride in what you do, he said. Always ask yourself, what's right?
He was young and his life was just beginning to take shape when they refused the bowl invitation, but he knew he was being tested that day. He knew they all were. The ideas and truths they had come to believe in and live by, the habits by which they conducted themselves, were at stake in that room.
Fifty years later, you wonder whether it made any difference in the world, whether it will matter to anyone now to learn what they did, before the vote and after.
Fifty years later, after you have raised a son and a daughter and been a schoolteacher and football coach for 33 years, you wonder how to describe what it has meant to you.
You wonder, what's the difference between knowing who you are and having no idea at all?
Willie taught in Buffalo area schools for more than 30 years. He coached football, and tennis and swimming, and ran a city parks program for most of that time as well. "Little Evans" became the mentor.
These days, he's an adviser for the university's alumni association, and coach Turner Gill recently asked him to speak to the 2008 Buffalo football team, a squad that is in a position to receive the university's second bowl bid.
You tell them what the men home from the war told you once upon a time. Keep striving. Don't quit. Anything is possible.
You tell them that if they work together they can achieve something special, something that endures.
You tell them about the Bulls of '58.
Eric Neel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN the Magazine.
Editor's Note: Known as the University of Buffalo during the 1958 season, the school joined the SUNY system in 1962 and changed its name to the University at Buffalo.
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