Burl Toler, First Black N.F.L. Official, Dies at 81

posted 2009-08-21 10:37:22 by stevemay

Burl Toler, who as perhaps the best player on one of college football’s greatest teams became the focus of racial discrimination, and who went on to become the first black on-field official in the National Football League, died Sunday in Castro Valley, Calif. He was 81.

He died after a sudden illness, said his daughter Susan Toler Carr.

The story of Toler’s college team, the 1951 University of San Francisco Dons, is one of the most extraordinary in sports. Called by Sports Illustrated “the best team you never heard of,” the Dons sent nine players to the N.F.L., three of whom — Gino Marchetti, Bob St. Clair and Ollie Matson — were eventually inducted into the Professional Football Hall of Fame. Its head coach was Joe Kuharich, who went on to coach at Notre Dame and for three professional teams; and the athletic publicity director was Pete Rozelle, who became the N.F.L. commissioner.

Toler, who played on the line on offense and linebacker on defense, was drafted by Cleveland, but he never made it to the pros because of a severe knee injury in a college all-star game.

“I personally felt Burl Toler was the best player of any of us,” Marchetti said in a telephone interview Wednesday. “He was the best tackler, the hardest hitter, and he had the most speed.”

The team went 9-0, defeating its opponents by an average score of 32-8, but it was not selected for a postseason game by the Southern-based bowl game committees, ostensibly because of its weak schedule, but in fact because of its two black players, Toler and Matson. In the interview, Marchetti said Rozelle and Kuharich told the team they would be invited to play in a bowl only if the team agreed to leave the two black players behind.

“We answered ‘No, we’d never do that,’ ” Marchetti said. “And after we said no and removed ourselves from consideration, nobody ever had a second thought about it.”

In 2000, the United States Senate unanimously passed a resolution, submitted by Barbara Boxer, Democrat of California, acknowledging that the Dons were victimized by racial prejudice and “that the treatment endured by this team was wrong and that recognition for it accomplishments is long overdue.”

Burl Abron Toler was born in Memphis on May 9, 1928. His father, Arnold, was a Pullman porter. His mother, Annie King Toler, operated a small store and ran a boarding house. Young Burl went to a segregated high school and did not play football because of a severe burn on his arm; he had an accident disposing of a vat of cooking grease.

After graduating, he went to San Francisco at the suggestion of an uncle who lived there, and he enrolled at the two-year City College of San Francisco, where the football coach spotted him in the gymnasium and asked him to come out for the team. In his first practice, the story goes, he tackled the star running back, Ollie Matson, on three consecutive plays. Their 1948 team was 12-0, and both Toler and Matson earned scholarships at the University of San Francisco.

Toler’s wife, Melvia, died in 1991. In addition to his daughter Susan, who lives in Altadena, Calif., he is survived by a brother, Arnold Jr., of Memphis; two other daughters, Valerie, of Hayward, Calif., and Jennifer, of Berkeley; three sons, Burl Jr., of El Sobrante, Calif., Gregory, of Oakland, and Martel, of San Francisco; and eight grandchildren.

After his knee injury, Toler taught math and physical education at a San Francisco junior high school, the Benjamin Franklin Middle School, where he eventually became the principal. The school was closed in 2004, but reopened in 2006 as the Burl A. Toler Campus, home to two charter schools. Toler was also a commissioner of the San Francisco Police Department from 1978 to 1986.

N.F.L. officiating is part-time work, conducted mostly on weekends. Toler was an N.F.L. official for 25 seasons, beginning in 1965, a year before Emmett Ashford became the first black umpire in the major leagues and three years before Jackie White broke the color barrier in the National Basketball Association. Toler officiated a number of crucial games, including Super Bowl XIV in 1980, in which the Pittsburgh Steelers defeated the Los Angeles Rams, and the 1982 A.F.C. championship game, in which the Cincinnati Bengals defeated the San Diego Chargers. It became known as the Freezer Bowl because it was played in the coldest temperatures of any game in league history. The wind chill in Cincinnati on Jan. 10, 1982, reached minus 59 degrees Fahrenheit. Toler sustained frostbite on his fingers.

“He was very, very knowledgeable about the game,” Jim Tunney, who worked on the same crew with Toler for 11 years, said in a telephone interview Thursday. “He knew about blocking and tackling. He knew about the emotions the players go through playing the game, which is very important.”

Tunney said Toler was so self-possessed that whatever racist attitudes he encountered in the game simply never became an issue.

“He just didn’t allow racism to enter into his doing his job,” Tunney said. “He never mentioned it, and if it ever did occur, he just rose above it.”

Unlike baseball umpires, whose crews rotate positions from game to game, football officials specialize. When Toler began his career, there were six on-field officials: the referee, who lines up behind the offensive backfield; the umpire, who is positioned in the middle of the field behind the defensive line; the head linesman and the line judge, who are on opposite sidelines on the line of scrimmage; the field judge, who stands on the sideline in the defensive backfield, and the back judge, who is positioned in midfield behind the defensive backs. A seventh official, the side judge, an across-the-field complement to the field judge, was added in 1978.

For most of his career, Toler was a head linesman, with a twofold responsibility: first to watch for line-of-scrimmage infractions like being offside, and then to move downfield to monitor receivers running short and midrange pass routes and the defenders covering them. The job requires not just the instinct to read plays as they develop and foot speed, but also, because he lines up on the sideline and within easy shouting distance of coaches, an especially serene demeanor.

“Burl was extremely quick; he could run like the wind,” said Art McNally, the N.F.L.’s supervisor of officials from 1968 to 1990. “But more than that he was a master of getting people who were up on the ceiling screaming and bringing them back down again.”