On Jan. 4, UB lost a legend. Willie Evans (EdB ’60), standout football player, former UB Alumni Association (UBAA) president, and teacher and coach with the Buffalo Public Schools for more than 30 years, died at age 79. It is difficult to encapsulate in words exactly what Willie meant to this university.
Willie will forever be remembered for his skill on the gridiron—he was a star running back for the Bulls in the late 1950s—and for his devotion to UB long after he received his degree.
On the field, Willie was the Bulls’ leading rusher from 1957 to 1959. He was a pivotal figure on the 1958 team that won the Lambert Cup, a trophy awarded to the best small school program in the East. The Bulls had gone 8-1 that year and earned the program’s first-ever bowl bid. They were going to play Florida State in the Tangerine Bowl. There was a catch, though. The organization hosting the bowl game prohibited interracial teams. Willie and fellow African-American teammate Mike Wilson (BS ’59) weren’t welcome to play.
As a team, and without hesitation, the Bulls elected to turn down the invitation, taking a stand against bigotry that set an example for the entire nation. This was 1958, four years before James Meredith would become the first black student to attend the University of Mississippi—where I spent four years working in athletic development prior to joining UB in 2012—and before the height of the civil rights movement. Buffalo is forever connected to that piece of history, and it’s something in which we can take a tremendous amount of pride.
As a person of color, I can’t help but try to put myself in Willie’s shoes and think about what life was like for a black man in America in the late 1950s. Willie was a fixture at UB sporting events, and I never took my interactions with him lightly. I cherished the opportunity to spend time with this man who suffered for the benefit of people like me. The fact that he was able to navigate through such a turbulent time in history gives me the confidence that I can do the same.
Willie received numerous awards for his accomplishments over the years. He and the 1958 football team received the Chancellor Charles P. Norton Medal, UB’s highest honor, in 2009. He was inducted into the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame that same year.
As outstanding as he was on the football field, Willie left an equally indelible mark on the UB community through his commitment to the university, right up until his passing. He was a longstanding board member of the UBAA, serving as president from 1981 to 1982. The Alumni Association renamed a scholarship in his honor in 2009; the Willie R. Evans UB Alumni Association Legacy Scholarship rewards incoming students who share the same principles that Willie so strongly represented.
He was also a super fan. He and his wife, Bobbie, came to tons of games, even more than I’ve attended. He was passionate about UB, and he wanted to make sure that the legacy of that 1958 team lived on.
Rest assured, Willie, you and your teammates will remain an integral part of UB. You are an inspiration to us all, and we are forever grateful.