USF players honored for anti-segregation stand

SAN FRANCISCO -- The white-haired former football players who rejected a segregation-era shot at playing in the Orange Bowl rather than abandon their black teammates wiped away tears as they were honored Friday for their half-century-old stand.

Drawing a standing ovation of graduates one-quarter their age, 10 players of the University of San Francisco's unbeaten 1951 football team were awarded honorary doctorates for a bowl berth that never happened.

The team's little-known stand "transcended the racist tenor of the time," Bill Hogan, the university's athletic director, told graduates.

"These men paid a price for their integrity," he said. "They refused to compromise their values. They sacrificed glory for honor and character."

The spontaneous reaction by the crowd of 1,000 at the Jesuit university's Saint Ignatius Church caught the old players off guard, said end Ralph Thomas, 76, from Reno, Nev., who went on to join the Washington Redskins in 1955.

"After all these years, we wondered if people even remembered we had a football team," he said. "I didn't realize what this meant until I saw the crowd's reaction. It's almost indescribable. It was very, very, very heartwarming."

The Dons had compiled a 9-0 record and were considered a lock to make the Orange Bowl when news reports surfaced that the Gator, Sugar and Orange bowls, all played in the South, had decided to ban teams with black players.

The USF coaching staff asked the team whether they would be willing to leave behind their two black players -- Burl Toler and Ollie Matson -- to improve their chances of securing a slot.

The team refused.

"It was automatic," Thomas said. "We didn't take a vote. It wasn't even a question. Either we all go or no one goes. We weren't a football team -- we were brothers."

An invite to compete in the Orange Bowl never came. At the time, the Orange Bowl said the decision was based on the Dons' schedule of weaker local opponents and not race.

A spokesman for the Orange Bowl Committee said Friday the group doesn't have detailed records for that year and could not comment on the decision.

The absence of a hefty bowl prize helped speed the demise of USF's money-losing football program, which was canceled the next year because of an athletic department deficit.

But nine of the team's starters went on to play in the NFL, including three Hall of Famers -- tackle Gino Marchetti, end Bob St. Clair, and black star fullback Matson.

The team's sports information director, Pete Rozelle, became NFL commissioner.

Of the team's 46 original players, seven have died.

Toler, 78, of San Francisco, a standout center, held back tears until the group was presented with the oversized ceremonial certificate.

"It was so beautiful all of us being up there together," said Toler, who was drafted by the Cleveland Browns his junior year but suffered a career-ending knee injury the following season. "It's so nice at this stage of our lives to have something like this happen to us. It was a decision we'll never forget."