Saturday, August 22, 2009

Let Us Celebrate the Life and Meaning of Burl Toler

Burl Abron Toler, Sr., a distinguished gentleman, star athlete, dedicated public servant, and racial pioneer, died last Sunday in Castro Valley, California at the age of 81.

Burl, originally from Memphis, was a star defensive lineman on the great 1951 University of San Francisco football team. Never heard of the 1951 Dons? They were the “undefeated, untied, and uninvited” Dons of 1951. The average margin of victor for the 9-0 season was 32-8. Sports Illustrated referred to the 1951 Dons as one of the greatest college footfall teams of all time. Nine of the players played in the NFL. Three, Ollie Matson, Gino Marchetti, and Leo St. Clair, are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame as players. No other college squad has that many players in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The football players viewed Burl at their best, but he blew out his knee in the College All-Star game, ending his pro prospects.

Every once in a while fate smiles on a high school, college or pro team. The stars, players and coaches are lined up perfectly for success. USF in the 1950’s was such an institution. Later that decade, three then unknown African American players, Bill Russell, K. C. Jones, and Hal Perry led the Dons to 60 straight wins and two NCAA basketball titles.

USF’s Sports Information Director in 1951 was a young alumnus, Alvin Ray Rozelle. His classmate was Pierre Salinger.

The 1951 Dons were denied a bowl game because of discrimination. Not because USF was a Catholic school: The Fighting Irish of Notre Dame, Rams of Fordham, and Galloping Gaels of St. Mary’s had achieved national fame; not because USF was a western team, because USC had become a national power and Berkeley, Stanford and UCLA had flashes of success.

No, the reason was racial discrimination; the Orange Bowl said it would be happy to invite USF, but only if USF left two players behind in San Francisco. Burl Toler and Ollie Matson were black, and hence anathema to southern bowls at that time. Very few major college teams had black players at that time.

Their teammates unanimously said they wouldn’t go without Burl and Ollie.

USF was thus uninvited, but proud and unbowed.

The cost to the team and school was great. Without the bowl, football lost $70,000 that year, and the Jesuits cancelled football immediately.

The decision was just for a Catholic university. The players, students, faculty, Jesuits and alumni never second guessed the decision to stand by the black players. That decision is a proud moment in USF history. As alums of both, the undefeated 1951 Dons football team means as much to me as the undefeated Wolverines 1997 football team.

After the injury sidelined his football career, Burl became a teacher in San Francisco, principal of the Benjamin Franklin Middle School, a police commissioner, trustee of USF, and also officiated high school football games. The Ben Franklin campus has been renamed the Burl A. Toler Campus.

A son, Burl Toler, Jr., and grandson, Burl Toler III, played college football at Berkeley.

In 1960 the former USF SID, better known as Pete Rozelle, was elected Commissioner of the NFL. Rozelle in 1965 appointed Burl an official at NFL games, thus becoming the first black official in major league football, baseball, and basketball – a true pioneer. Burl Toler worked as a NFL official for 25 years. Ironically, he officiated professional football games in some of the arenas that did not want him as a college player.

Pete Rozelle is also in the NFL Hall of Fame. Burl’s turn should come some day.

USF’s basketball and football legacy, Toler, Matson, Russell, Jones, Perry, was to be in the forefront in integrating college sports. They showed the way to Texas Western, Michigan State, USC, and other basketball and football teams who subsequently relied upon black athletes to win national titles.


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