Dozens of USF students gathered in the school's University Center on Sunday to watch the premiere of an ESPN film highlighting an important piece of their history.
The hourlong “'51 Dons” highlighted the last football team fielded by USF, which boasted a 9-0 record in 1951, but was denied a bowl game appearance when the team refused to exclude their two black players, Ollie Matson and Burl Toler, from postseason play.
That team produced a dozen NFL players, including three future Hall of Famers in Matson, Gino Marchetti and Bob St. Clair, though the team has not gotten a lot of attention nationally until the past few years.
The team eventually got its due, receiving an honorary invitation to the 2008 Fiesta Bowl, where they were honored on the field.
Both the late trip to the bowl game and the film can be traced back to one thing that got the team in the spotlight, according to USF President Stephen A. Privett.
“They first reached national attention when we gave them an honorary degree about eight years ago,” Privett told The San Francisco Examiner. “It was picked up by national news and after that, they got invited to the bowl and that's when it really got ignited.”
He said the team has never been forgotten by the school, and remains an integral part in the traditions and themes entrenched on the Hilltop.
“This is a very important part [of our culture],” Privitt said. “It's in the film we show to new students and their parents. Athletes are very aware of this tradition, and the themes of integrity, character, sacrifice play all the way through the university.”
The film will air several more times on ESPN2 and ESPNU over the next few weeks as part of the network's recognition of Black History Month.