April 02, 2009

Univ. of Buffalo team stood up to racism

Source: RA 2009
Caption: In 1958, University of Buffalo football players, including, from left, Jim Keats, Willie Evans, Jack Dempsey and Gene Zinni, refused to play in a post-season bowl game because the host stadium would not allow black players on the field. The team was honored by RA delegates for their courage to stand up for social justice.

They showed courage on the gridiron and solidarity away from it.

Fifty-one years ago, the University of Buffalo football team was tearing up the competition, beating Harvard on its own field and winning an invitation to Orlando, Fla.'s, Tangerine Bowl. But in the Jim Crow South, the bowl invitation came with a price - one the team refused to pay.

Bulls players Willie Evans and Mike Wilson, black athletes from Buffalo, weren't allowed by the lessee of the stadium to cross its color line.

So, their teammates unanimously rejected the invitation - the lone bowl bid the school (now University at Buffalo) had received until 2008.

"We didn't even vote," said Jim Keats. "We never thought of accepting it. We tossed the ballots on the floor and walked out."

Keats, Evans and several other players from that 1958 team, including Jack Dempsey and Gene Zinni, went on to be school teachers and NYSUT members.

The four were honored at the RA as examples of men who, before the Civil Rights movement, gave numbers and muscle to the fight for social justice, standing up for their teammates at great personal expense.

In introducing them to RA delegates who erupted in wild applause and a sustained standing ovation, NYSUT President Dick Iannuzzi said theirs was "the act of a historic football team, one that made its mark on history - off the field."

Evans spent much of his career in the Buffalo schools, Dempsey in Niagara Falls, Keats in the Eden schools and Zinni at the Orleans-Niagara BOCES. He is still coaching football at Buffalo State.

Other members of their UB team were unable to attend the RA but also became NYSUT members and educators. George Maue taught at Lake Shore, Bernie Fagan in Rochester, Dick Van Valkenburg in Hamburg, Joe Oliverio in Lockport and Bill Brogan at Frontier.

Joe Shifflet and Bob Muscarella taught at Niagara Falls and Bob Yerge in Williamsville. Teammates Fred Kogut worked at the City University of New York and Sampson Sanders worked in the SUNY system.