One of football’s unsung heroes died last month. Richard O’Hagan remembers a man who helped change it forever.
You won’t find the name of Willie Evans, who died on 4 January 2017, written in any of the NFL’s record books. His career never made it past the college stage. He was drafted by the Bills in 1959 but never played for them, preferring instead to work as a physical education teacher, a role in which he eventually became Director of Education for the entire Buffalo city school system.
It was the college stage upon which he made his name, though. A 182 pound halfback in the days when that was considered large, he rushed for 1559 yards in his sophomore year at the University of Buffalo, achieving a remarkable 6.36 yards per carry in an era where passing the ball was still an afterthought.
On the back of that performance, UB put together an 8-1 season and were invited to play in the Tangerine Bowl in Orlando, Florida. However, the team were also informed that the two black players on the roster, Evans and defensive end Mike Wilson, would not be allowed to compete as the Orlando High School Athletic Association, who owned the playing field, did not allow blacks and whites to play together on it.
The university informed the team that it was their decision whether to attend or not and, to the astonishment of everyone, they backed Evans and Wilson and elected not to play. It was considered a remarkable stance in an era when America was still heavily racially segregated and provoked much comment and debate.
In later life, Evans was always keen to play down the incident, claiming to remember little of it, but the repercussions of it rang deep within college football, which in those days was still considered superior to the NFL.
Evans died from the after-effects of a fall. He was 79.