Until this past season's International Bowl, the University at Buffalo Bulls had not played in a bowl game their entire 102-year history of football. I use the word played because they have been invited to a bowl game. In 1958, the Buffalo Bulls went 8-1 and were invited to play in the Tangerine Bowl against Florida State. The game was not to be, however, as two members of the Buffalo Bulls, starting halfback Willie Evans and backup defensive lineman Mike Wilson, were black. This circumstance posed a problem for the Bulls because the Orlando High School Athletic Association, sponsors of the Tangerine Bowl, did not allow blacks and whites to play on the same field. Rather than leave them behind, the Bulls held a team meeting and voted not to accept the invitation and did not play in the 1958 Tangerine Bowl. Willie Evans went on to bigger and better things, however, as he was drafted to play for my grandfather on the new AFL franchise in town, the Buffalo Bills.
Ernie Davis was the first black player to win the Heisman Trophy. He starred at Syracuse University at the HB position and was named to two All-American teams. In 1959, Syracuse won the National Championship by defeating Texas in the Cotton Bowl to cap an undefeated season. After the game, Ernie Davis accepted his MVP award at the banquet and was then asked to leave because of his skin color. He also was drafted by the Buffalo Bills, but he eventually signed with Paul Brown in Cleveland after a bitter dispute between my grandfather and the Browns organization. Had there not been separate leagues, Ernie Davis may have led the Bills to prominence earlier and saved my grandfather's job. He and my grandfather were inducted to the College Football Hall of Fame in the same ceremony in 1979.
My grandfather didn't care if his players were white or black, they were all equally soft. That was the worst thing you could be in Buster's eyes, soft. If you had the best technique in the league, the most speed, the best hands, arm, whatever, none of it matter unless you gave every ounce of mental and physical strength and energy you could muster every time you stepped on the field. There was no such thing as a lazy white man or a lazy black man, it was a lazy waste of time, equipment, and money as far as he was concerned
It is no secret that my grandfather could be a tough man to play for, especially if you screwed up. He would scream and be in your face constantly until you at least gave it you maximum effort, even if you still couldn't get it right. There was no excuse to do otherwise. Buster Ramsey was an old-school guy as far as football went. You didn't get out of practice or sit out a game with turf toe, a strained hammy, or dislocated shoulder. You had it popped back in place and went back in. That's just how it was. As beat up as he was at 40, my grandfather challenged players to hit him during practice to test their meddle. By the time he retired, he had broken his nose approximately 13 times, worn out both his knees, suffered too many concussions to count, and had even played a game with a cracked vertebrae in his neck. Yes, you read that right, he played a game with a broken neck. Reckless? Probably. Stupid? Maybe. Soft? Never. He would accept nothing else from his own players. In return, Buster would go to war for his players in every way he could. He was even fined by the league for punching an opposing player on his own sideline whom he thought had taken a cheap shot on one of his own guys.
This is why he could never truthfully be called a racist. During a time when this country was struggling mightly with its own identity and attempting to reconcile past racial discrimination with Constitutional Amendments, my grandfather would sign and play anybody and everybody whom he thought would help the Bills win, regardless of race or creed, including Willie Evans and Ernie Davis. Buster may not have even known the story of the the 1958 Bulls when he drafted Willie in 1960. He most likely saw a tough player who could help the team on the field. Sure, the fact that he was from Buffalo probably helped as my grandfather knew what good publicity could do for the program, but the color of his skin had no bearing on anything. It would be the same for Elbert Dubenion and other black players throughout those first two years. In this regard, my grandfather likely set the standard for the new rival league of the NFL.
Cheap Shots and the Importance of Character
Aside from the toughness of his players, Buster looked for players with a quality character. He wanted fine men and not troublemakers or thugs, regardless of color. The importance he placed on character above all else is what most likely led to his lifelong, one-way feud with a Buffalo beat-writer whom I will not name out of respect for his accomplishments rather than his character. I say one-way because my grandfather could care less what someone with such a poor character as the writer said or thought about him.
No one really knows why this person took to disliking Buster. It is probable that Buster had either a falling out with him, or just never gave him the respect he felt he deserved. I do know that my grandfather had good relationships with nearly ever other Bills beat-writer, especially Jack Horrigan, and perhaps the other writer was jealous of that. In any case, he spent 40 years calling Buster Ramsey a profane, racist, redneck when he knew himself that was not the truth. My grandfather never cared what was said or written about him, but it became personal to me and my family when this person marked my grandfather's death by writing an article for the Buffalo News directly referring to him as a drunk, racist, and bombastic individual who had no business being in control of the Bills. Maybe my grandfather didn't care, and maybe I lacked his strength of character and integrity, but I felt compelled to respond to the column in the Buffalo News with one of my own, as well as a few emails to the addresses I could find for the author. Maybe that's why I responded, but what's more likely is it's because I knew what my grandfather did for the black players he had and that information did not sync with the published stories.
Seeing Color on the Road
We've all heard the term "white guilt" before, but there exists a similar form of the same phenomena, Southerner's guilt. My grandfather grew up in East Tennessee and saw first hand how black people were treated in the 20's and 30's. As he began his football career outside of the deep south, he made direct efforts to reconcile as best as he could the intolerance he had seen with the quality of character he sought out in a person regardless of skin color. During the Bills' road trips, Buster Ramsey made it a point to stay places and have his team visit places that would not discriminate against the black players on the team. There would be no repeats of the Ernie Davis or Willie Evans cases as my grandfather refused to put his team in a postion where that situation could happen. The Bills would not have to make a choice between playing a game without a couple players or walking off the field because Buster made sure the issue was a non-issue before they even arrived.
Buster Ramsey was stereotyped by some as a racist because he was southern. But in the end, he treated them all the same regardless of their color, demanding unquestioned toughness from all but also unquestionable character. My grandfather said he refused to sign talented players, both white and black, in Buffalo who might have in retrospect helped him win a few more games and save his job, but were known for behavioral issues. He would not tolerate anyone with a chip on their shoulder, so he probably, and he knew it later in life, could not have coached in the modern era.
When he left to coach the Steelers defense, Buddy Parker said he gave him a bunch of misfits and midgets, white and black, to work with. Of the black players, Johnny Samples, very talented but possessed a troubled ego, could not stand him and was released. Big Daddy Lipscomb, John Baker, and Brady Keys bought in to his toughness, had the best years of their careers, and led to the development of the best defense in the league by the end of the year.