1951 USF Dons: The team that stood tall

Before Super Bowl 50 writes the next chapter in the history of football in the Bay Area, NFL Media is examining local football heroes who were, in their own, unique ways, ahead of their time. Here's the story of a college team that gave up everything to stand for what was right ...

The Southern Pacific Daylight train rolled into the Third and Townsend Street station around 6 p.m. on a Monday, which left the members of the University of San Francisco football team ample time to continue their partying. They already had chugged beers, sang "Good Night, Irene" and listened to star guard Dick Colombini plucking a ukulele for most of the nine-hour trip from Los Angeles back to San Francisco. Now they were about to receive their grand prize for finishing the 1951 regular season with a 9-0 record. Life couldn't have been any sweeter.

The team was returning from a 20-2 win over Loyola of Los Angeles, a victory that meant a bowl invitation was forthcoming. But when the players emptied out of the train and met with head coach Joe Kuharich, a different message was sent. Of the three major bowls in the south -- the Gator, Sugar and Orange -- only the Orange Bowl wanted a team that would end up ranked 14th in The Associated Press poll. That proposal also came with the caveat that made even less sense to the Dons:

USF's two black players, Ollie Matson and Burl Toler, couldn't attend.

The players stared, dumbfounded. Kuharich stood quietly, gauging the pain that his team was feeling. A few minutes later, the team had its answer for the Orange Bowl.

"We told them to go to hell," said Bill Henneberry, who was the Dons' backup quarterback at the time. "If Ollie and Burl didn't go, none of us were going. We walked out, and that was the end of it."

* * * **

On Nov. 20, 2015, roughly 100 people gathered inside tiny War Memorial Gymnasium at USF. They were there to mingle with 20 elderly men who beamed with the same pride they felt while on that trip back from Los Angeles 64 years prior. The members of the 1951 Dons football team meet every year around that time for that luncheon. On this day, they were celebrating the latest recipient of a scholarship in Kuharich's name, while also honoring two recently deceased members: Bob St. Clair and Dick Stanfel.

"There aren't many of us left," Colombini said. "Ollie Matson is dead. So is Burl Toler. Bob and Dick just passed. We're diminishing in numbers."

That team might be losing members, but time has become better to them with each passing year. The '51 Dons -- as they've come to be known -- didn't generate any significant news coverage when they turned down the Orange Bowl offer. In their eyes, they did what needed to be done. They stood up for the teammates they knew and loved.

However, the '51 Dons have gained more attention with each passing decade, both for that stand and their overall greatness. Eight members of the team played in the NFL, with five of those appearing in at least one Pro Bowl. Three of them -- Matson, St. Clair and Gino Marchetti -- have been elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, while Stanfel is on the Hall's Seniors Committee ballot this year. Add in the fact that Toler became the NFL's first black official, and that the team's 25-year-old publicist, Pete Rozelle, eventually served nearly 30 years as NFL commissioner (and also became a Hall of Famer) and ... you get the picture. This was unquestionably a team for the ages.

"If you look at the talent we had, you'd be hard-pressed to find another school in the country who could match it," said Ralph Thomas, who played offensive right end, defensive left end and also spent the 1952 season with the Chicago Cardinals and the 1955 and '56 seasons with the Washington Redskins. "Nowadays, you see college teams with 100 players on their rosters. We had 33 players. So to have that percentage go to the NFL really is amazing."

Even more startling is the sheer lack of notoriety the team received in the wake of that fateful decision in 1951. Nobody even talked about the Orange Bowl snub until a local broadcaster named Ira Blue reported that former Gator Bowl president Sam Wolfson had made a pact with the Orange and Sugar Bowls to omit teams with black players. Decades later, a 1990 Sports Illustrated article brought more attention. And a book written by Kristine Clark, entitled "Undefeated, Untied and Uninvited," was published in 2002.

There has been more reverence in recent years -- an ESPN documentary aired in 2014, while a feature film is in the works -- but it's still hard to imagine a story this significant going largely unnoticed for so long. As Clark said, "People knew this team didn't go to a bowl game. They just didn't know why."

* * * **

The 1951 season defined the character of the USF football team, but its story began long before that. It started with Kuharich, a stern, 34-year-old head coach who was nicknamed "The Barracuda" because of how hard he worked his teams after being hired in 1948. Kuharich cared more about coaching players than finding them, so he often delegated recruiting to his top assistant, Brad Lynn. With Lynn leading the way, the Dons discovered promising athletes both inside and outside the Bay Area.

Matson arrived as a local star from City College of San Francisco, a speedster whose mother had wanted him to become a dentist when she moved her family to the Bay Area from Texas. Toler didn't even play high school football in his hometown of Memphis before becoming a junior college teammate of Matson's. Toler actually was walking the halls at City College one day in 1948 when somebody told him he was late for practice. When Toler said he wasn't on the football team, the man said he was so big that he should join the squad immediately.

St. Clair was just as much of a late bloomer -- he went from being a 5-foot-9, 160-pound kid as a freshman at San Francisco's Polytechnic High to being a 6-7, 235-pound behemoth in 1951 -- while Marchetti's recruitment was something straight out of a movie script. Marchetti was a high school dropout who was tending bar in Antioch and playing at Modesto Junior College when Lynn came to court him. Already 25 years old, Marchetti had served the Army in World War II (he fought in the Battle of the Bulge). He also had flowing long hair when Lynn found him in that bar, which fit right in with the cigarette dangling between his lips and the beer in his hand.

"Lynn told Marchetti that they wanted him to come play at USF," Colombini said. "The only [stipulations] were that he had to quit drinking and smoking, and he had to cut his hair. I don't know how he did it, but he convinced Gino to come."

There was little on paper to suggest this team would grow into a dominant unit when it first came together. Only a handful of the players Lynn recruited -- a group that also included future pros like Thomas, Stanfel, Mike Mergen, Joe Scudero and quarterback Ed Brown -- arrived with big-time potential. He sold them all on an all-male Jesuit school with a total enrollment of 1,276 and an underwhelming football program. They responded by forging deep bonds with each other, largely because Kuharich drove them so hard in practice.

Kuharich loved to hold his training camps in Corning, California, a small town located 170 miles north of San Francisco and well known for its miserable heat. On one afternoon prior to the 1951 season, the players practiced in temperatures that reached 112 degrees. They huddled beneath telephone poles to find a sliver of shade. They found a pipe with a leak and sucked out droplets of water.

"We all went through it," Henneberry said. "And we all paid the price together."

The players likely saw the possibilities that awaited them if their coach didn't break them in camp. They went 7-4 in 1950, but neither Cal nor Stanford -- both of whom had powerhouse programs and played them that year -- wanted to schedule USF for 1951, so Kuharich looked for games wherever he could find them. The Dons ultimately would play San Jose State twice, with contests against the Camp Pendleton Marines and the San Diego Naval Training Center thrown in for good measure.

Of all the schools the Dons faced with credible football reputations -- a group that included Santa Clara, College of the Pacific and Loyola of Los Angeles -- Fordham was the opponent that opened everybody's eyes to what was happening at USF. Rozelle was thrilled about the game being played in New York, because that was the epicenter of sports media. He even drove legendary writer Grantland Rice to the game to ensure proper coverage. Always the marketing guru, Rozelle knew his school would never have a better shot at proving itself to the world.

However, Rozelle's heart also sank when Matson went to field the opening kickoff and watched the ball slip right through his hands. The more Matson tried to pick up the ball, the harder it was for Rozelle to resist the urge to peek at Rice, who was sitting a few seats away on press row.

"Pete told my dad that he had his heart in his throat when Ollie fumbled that kickoff," said Kuharich's son, Bill, who most recently worked as the Cleveland Browns' executive chief of staff and has spent the better part of three decades as an NFL executive. "But then Ollie took it [94 yards] for a touchdown."

Matson finished that day with three touchdowns -- adding a 90-yard kick return and a 3-yard touchdown run -- while also amassing 302 total yards. As a result, the Dons left town with a 32-26 win over the previously undefeated Rams and plenty of national writers raving about the team from San Francisco. USF also destroyed its next three opponents by a combined score of 99-28. The season finale with Loyola of Los Angeles wasn't much of a challenge, either.

Since Kuharich had his players go both ways, USF always seemed to be playing to its strengths. When they were on offense, they had a line that featured Marchetti, St. Clair and Mergen. Matson was unstoppable -- he led the nation with 1,566 rushing yards and 21 touchdowns -- while Brown was a big-armed quarterback with the ability to demoralize teams with the deep pass. That offense put up 37.6 points per game. When the same players went on defense, they held their opponents to just 9.6 a contest, with Toler leading the way at linebacker.

But the Dons were about more than numbers. Their chemistry turned out to be their most impressive trait, and it was present from the moment they all came together. When USF traveled to play Tulsa during the 1949 season, Matson and Toler were told they couldn't stay in the same hotel as their white teammates, so some of those white players moved into the hotel their black teammates had to stay in across town. When Matson and Toler tried to accompany their teammates to a restaurant for dinner on the same trip, the local owner refused to serve them. All the players kept moving on until they found a restaurant that would take every one of them.

That was the first time the young Dons really got a taste of the racism that existed outside of the Bay Area -- "We had no idea that this stuff was happening in other parts of the country," Colombini recalled -- but it also wouldn't be the last.

"These guys were very naïve," Clark said. "San Francisco was always out in front when it came to civil rights, and guys like St. Clair barely knew anything outside of the city. To them, there was no color barrier. They looked at things like what happened in the Orange Bowl and thought, What's wrong with these people?"

* * * **

The most amazing aspect of the 1951 Dons' decision wasn't that they passed on the Orange Bowl; it's that they never realized the magnitude of this action.

"This was before Rosa Parks," Bill Kuharich said. "It was before Martin Luther King. It's a great story because nobody thought about the ramifications of what they were doing. They just did it."

Initially, the story given to the press was that the Orange Bowl chose Baylor to meet Georgia Tech because USF had played a soft schedule. But Blue's report shed more light on the rationale behind the move. There might have been more of an outcry if the circumstances surrounding the football program weren't so problematic. In dismissing the Orange Bowl -- and failing to get a bid from anybody else -- the Dons put their school in a precarious position.

USF already was losing roughly $70,000 per year on the sport, and the Orange Bowl's payout (reportedly $50,000 at the time) would've covered plenty of bills.

"As soon as the season ended, the board of regents met a few weeks later and voted to drop football," Henneberry said. "They had lost so much money over the previous four years that they couldn't afford to keep it going. It really was that abrupt."

The players talk about that period after the Orange Bowl decision as if it was a whirlwind. Before the school announced its decision on Dec. 30, 1951, Kuharich had resigned to accept a job coaching the NFL's Chicago Cardinals. The older players on the team -- those with wives and children -- started thinking about jobs or preparing to fight in the Korean War. The players who still had remaining eligibility either stayed in school with their scholarships honored or transferred. St. Clair, for instance, finished his college career at Tulsa.

There were also the supremely gifted players who wound up in the NFL. Toler, who is often cited as the most talented of the '51 Dons -- "You didn't see many black players playing center or linebacker in those days, and he was a team captain, which told you how respected he was," said Toler's son, Greg -- would have joined that group, but he hurt his knee in a 1952 all-star game pitting college players against the Los Angeles Rams. Despite being drafted by the Cleveland Browns in the ninth round of the 1951 draft, Toler, who was still a junior at that point, opted to quit football and finish his degree in science.

USF dumped its football program quickly -- and its most memorable team seemed to fade away just as fast.

"People simply had different life schedules," Henneberry said. "But I also never remember hearing anybody say they had any regrets about what we did. We were too close. We still have great friendships until this day and we get together every year."

One of those annual lunches led to a surprise that helped the '51 Dons understand how far their story had traveled. As they enjoyed their ceremony in 2008, Colombini noticed some people standing nearby in yellow blazers. A spokesman for the group announced minutes later that he was with a group representing the Fiesta Bowl. The Orange Bowl might have done the USF football program a disservice, but the Fiesta Bowl wanted to make amends. The committee wanted all the living Dons to join their event for a tribute during halftime.

So the former players spent a week in Arizona, where they dined at swanky restaurants and stayed in a plush five-star resort. They already had enjoyed the hospitality offered by the 2006 Emerald Bowl committee -- they had been honored at halftime of that game, which was played in San Francisco, and given game tickets for life -- but this was a different level.

"That game started the whole thing going for us," Colombini said. "After that treatment, we all thought, What's next?"

NFL Films came out to talk about a movie. ESPN called with their idea. Clark also has pushed both the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations to bring the team out for a visit. She wanted people to know the '51 Dons were extraordinary because their decision wasn't about making a statement. It was about doing the right thing, backing up your friends, fighting for your family.

Those former players also realize that time was special for more reasons than just football. Kuharich had an esteemed career -- he played and coached at Notre Dame while spending 11 seasons as an NFL head coach -- but his son believes his father's greatest experience was coaching that team.

"They have so much pride in what they did together," Bill Kuharich said. "You have to remember that these were 19- and 20-year-old kids who made these decisions. I don't know if you would see that happen today."

The Missouri football team actually threatened to sit out a game to combat racial problems on their own campus late last year, but Kuharich's point is well taken. The issues at Missouri were resolved before those players ever had to miss a game, while the '51 Dons ultimately walked away.

That sacrifice is why the number of people who attend their annual lunches at USF continues to grow, and the appreciation for them continually blossoms outside the Bay Area. The love people feel for them was clear at halftime of that Fiesta Bowl event. As the former players walked off the field, the sheer number of fans who reached out to touch them astonished them.

It was a gesture that spoke to the simple yet powerful statement they made, and also to their humility. As Clark noted, "Even in that situation, they still didn't get what the big deal was about them."

Said Henneberry: "Most of the attention we get is because of the action we took in the face of discrimination. And when you look back on it, I guess you could say we really were a team that was ahead of our time."

Follow Jeffri Chadiha on Twitter @jeffrichadiha.

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