Toler still captures everyone’s hearts

Burl Toler could not get off the stage.

The star center and linebacker from the 1951 USF football team was in the Italian Room of the Westin St. Francis Monday afternoon, one of five newly minted members of the Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame.

Toler joined fellow honorees Eddie DeBartolo Jr., the former 49ers owner, ex-Niners running back Roger Craig, former Raiders punter Ray Guy and Marin native and Olympic champion swimmer Rick DeMont at the 29th annual enshrinement banquet. And long after his fellow inductees had stepped down and started mingling with the crowd, Toler was happily being pulled back to smile with family members and friends in front of his new plaque.

“I’m proud,” Toler said. “I always just tried to do my best.”

Toler, 79, was known as one of the best players for the Dons when they featured future Pro Football Hall of Famers Gino Marchetti, Ollie Matson and Bob St. Clair. The 1951 USF team is perhaps best known, though, for a game it didn’t play. The Dons finished their regular season 9-0, but were told by bowl organizers that in order to play a postseason game, they would have to leave Matson and Toler — their two black players — behind.

The players unanimously refused and the team was honored for its courage and character before this year’s Fiesta Bowl and recently became the subject of a documentary entitled “Uninvited: The 1951 USF Football Team.”

“We stood up for what we believed in,” Toler said. “We did the job and we did it well.”

Despite his talent, Toler never made it to the NFL as a player after suffering a knee injury during the 1952 college all-star game. He went on to become the NFL’s first black referee in 1965 and also worked for 17 years at Benjamin Franklin Middle School in The City. It was there that he became the district’s first black secondary school principal and the school was later named after him.

And even on a day where he was being honored, Craig took the time to put his arm around Toler on the podium for a brief chat and a photo.

“What he had to go through, the statement they made and the way they stuck together as a team and as a family is amazing,” Craig said. “They say he was the best guy on that team, better than Ollie Matson, and I wish I would have been around to see it.”

melliser@examiner.com

Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame

This year’s inductees:

» Roger Craig, running back, 49ers

» Eddie DeBartolo Jr., owner, 49ers

» Ray Guy, punter, Raiders

» Rick DeMont, swimmer

» Burl Toler, center-linebacker, USF

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