by Lee Hubbard
At his funeral service at St. Ignatius Church on the campus of the University of San Francisco this past Wednesday, Burl Toler was remembered as a humble, kind and upstanding man.
Toler was that and more. He was a trailblazer in San Francisco athletics and education. Born in Memphis, Tennessee, May 9, 1928, Toler arrived in the San Francisco Bay Area in 1947, after a brief stint at Lemoyne College. His family decided living in California would be a good move for him and joined his Uncle Louis King, an Oakland based entrepreneur.
He soon enrolled at San Francisco City College and began to play football. At City College, he was part of the school’s 1948 “Mythical Junior College Championship” team and named a Junior College All American football player. After that season, he enrolled at USF and quickly became one of the Dons best football players.
Toler was one of the best players on the historic 1951 team that went undefeated at 9-0. They were supposed to play in a bowl game after crushing Pacific University 47-14. But the Dons didn’t get invited to a bowl game, while Pacific went to the Sun Bowl. At the time, a Southern based bowl committee, which controlled the bowl game selection process, declined to give the Dons a bowl game based on its supposedly weak schedule.
This decision was based on the fact that the Dons had two Black players, Toler and former San Francisco 49er great Ollie Matson. When offered an opportunity to play in a bowl game if the Dons would leave Toler and Matson home, the entire team stood up against this racism and turned down the offer.
In 1952, Toler was drafted by the National Football League’s Cleveland Browns and a sure professional football career awaited him. But he got injured in a college all-star game, ending his playing career. This however did not stop Toler. He began to work in the area of education at Benjamin Franklin Middle School for 17 years in the Fillmore District, going from a teacher, coach and counselor to becoming the San Francisco Unified School District’s first African American secondary school principal.
“I had planned to play professional football and I was also always interested in education and students,” said Toler in a 1968 interview. “The knee injury led me into education sooner.”
While his football playing days were over as a player, Toler was still a football first. In 1965, he became the first African American official in any sport, as he was hired by the NFL and worked for 25 years as an official in over 300 games, including several playoff games and a Super Bowl. He used his experience as an official in the NFL to inspire the kids he taught in school.
“My career as a football player and now a line judge in the NFL definitely works to an advantage here at school,” continued Toler. “This means I’m kind of a symbol of what can be accomplished by the Black man.”
After working in the San Francisco Unified School District, he moved on up to the San Francisco Community College system as the director of Certified Services for several years. After retirement from the NFL as an official and the Community College school district, he worked on a part-time basis as an NFL official evaluator and referee recruiter.
Toler passed away peacefully Sunday, Aug. 16, 2009. His wife of 38 years, Melvia, preceded him in death in 1991. He is survived by his six children, Valerie, Burl Jr., Susan, Gregory, Martel and Jennifer, eight grandchildren, a brother Arnold Jr. of Memphis, Tennessee, several cousins and relatives and his companion of over 15 years, Rena Bancroft.
Over 1,500 people came to the funeral, including many of his former 1951 teammates, NFL officials, family members and other people, to acknowledge Toler and his impact as a mentor and community figure. Gregory Toler said his father had a “Forest Gump-like story” of coming from nothing to success, but he was “prepared for any opportunity that came his way.”
Walter Johnson, a Bay View community activist, didn’t know Toler that well, but he came to his funeral to acknowledge the impact and contribution he made to the African American community, locally and nationally.
“Toler has to be honored from a historical perspective,” said Johnson. “From all of the firsts in education and sports.”
In 2006, the site that housed Benjamin Franklin Middle School was named after Toler as the Burl A. Toler Campus. He also garnered several awards and acknowledgements in education and sports, including a 1988 California Association of Community Colleges Distinguished Alumni Award, USF Alumnus of the year in 1995, the Isaac Hayes Achievement Award in Sports and induction into the City College, USF and Bay Area Sports Halls of Fame.
Bay Area writer Lee Hubbard can be reached at email@example.com.