Sunday Special: Evans and Bell
PHILADELPHIA (AP) _ This is the story of two football players who came to the University of Pennsylvania a lifetime ago, two friends who would travel a lonely road together.
Ed Bell was an end; Bob Evans was a guard.
And both of them were black, something almost unheard of in 1949, especially at Ivy League Penn.
Remember the time. This was two years after Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color line, three years after Woody Strode and Kenny Washington integrated the NFL, a year before Chuck Cooper became the first black player drafted by the NBA.
There were few blacks in college football then, almost none on the Penn campus or on the teams Penn played. Four years later, when they were seniors, there were just five other black players in the entire Ivy League. Cornell had none. Princeton had none. Yale had none. So Ed Bell and Bob Evans were thrust into a unique situation. They would be trailblazers.
``I kidded Bob,″ Bell said. ``I told him they recruited me to keep him company. We faced some racism. One time, we scrimmaged at Maryland. We ate on campus. Some of the players went into a drug store for sodas. When we walked in, they said they couldn’t serve us. The whole team left.″
In 1950, the first varsity season for the two sophomores, Evans lined up next to Sam Greenawalt, Penn’s senior center. In the single wing set that Penn played, no one was more important to the center than the guard.
``He protected my buns,″ Greenawalt said. ``He saved me and I did the same for him. We were wearing the same colors. He made it so I could snap properly. On punts, they’d line up right over the center and rip him. I used to say, `Bobby, give me two seconds, just two seconds.′ He’d hit like a cobra. All you’d hear is the air going out of the guy he blocked. He was built like a bull and he was fearless.″
Off the field, Evans was quiet and reserved. And he stayed close to his buddy, Bell.
``Eddie was a little more outgoing,″ Greenawalt said. ``They hung together. They were these two black guys with a bunch of raucous, white studs from all over the place. We didn’t know how to treat them.″
Neither did some of the assistants on coach George Munger’s staff. Sometimes, they’d put on a pseudo-Southern accent when they talked to the pair. Bell chuckles over that today.
``We grew up in Philadelphia,″ he said.
Penn was playing high-pressure football, a national schedule against powerhouse teams from all over the country. It faced Wisconsin with Alan Ameche, Notre Dame with Johnny Lattner, Georgia with Zeke Bratkowski. And the team did it at a time when the Ivy League was starting to de-emphasize football, eliminating spring practice.
In his senior season, 1952, Evans was elected captain of the team, the first black to earn that honor at Penn.
``We were surprised to some degree,″ Bell said. ``It was not a shock, though. He was well-respected.″
``He was elected captain not because he was black, but because he was a real leader on our team,″ said Rich Rosenbleeth, who was a year behind Bell and Evans. ``There was pressure. He kept it all in. He was not outgoing. A thing like that affects your whole life.″
In Evans’ first game as captain, 12th-ranked Penn faced No. 10 Notre Dame before a sellout crowd of 75,000 at Franklin Field. Lattner scored in the first quarter for the Irish and then Penn tied it in the third on a 65-yard pass play to Bell.
Final score: Notre Dame 7, Penn 7.
The game ball went to Evans. It sits in his home today, the air mostly out of it now, so many years later.
Penn won the next three games and then tied Navy 7-7. But the captain was having health problems.
``He got sick,″ Bell said. ``He had a bad knee and he developed ulcers. There was a lot of pressure. Our whole situation was pressure. A lot of it was external, some of it was internal. We had to succeed because of the situation.″
Evans was hospitalized for three weeks. His season as Penn’s first black captain was over early, too early. He could not give up the game, though.
Evans returned to his roots, coaching part time at his alma mater, Roman Catholic High School.
When one of his players, Dennis Sanders, was paralyzed in a car crash, Evans visited him in the hospital every day. Sanders was unconscious, and Evans would repeat plays to him over and over, hoping they would help him recover. One of the nurses, Joann Williams, watched this gentle giant’s devotion to the young man, working daily to bring him back.
They married in 1966.
``Robert A. always talked about his football days,″ Joann said. ``He always chose to remember the good and never dwelt on the negative.″
Bell made it to the pros. He spent time with the Philadelphia Eagles, played in a Grey Cup game in Canada and then for the New York Titans. He even was a babysitter for the NFL, looking after prospective draft choices during the signing wars with the old AFL.
In 1994, Bell was diagnosed with leukemia and hospitalized for 36 weeks. Evans, his knee all but useless now, limped in every week to visit his friend.
``He was always there,″ Bell said. ``He came to see me at great personal discomfort.″
Joann Evans knew why.
``Robert A. was an only child,″ she said. ``Eddie was the brother he never had.″
One month ago, Bob Evans, Penn’s first black captain, suffered a heart attack and died in his home. Ed Bell, a large man supported by an ornately carved cane, went to his friend’s funeral.
End advance for Sunday, Dec. 22