“Burl Toler was the best. He had everything an athlete should have: he loved the game, he was fast and he was the best tackler I’ve ever seen. He would have been a hell of an NFL linebacker,” said Gino Marchetti, defensive end for the Baltimore Colts and former teammate of Toler.
Burl Abron Toler, Sr., was born on May 9, 1928 in Memphis, Tennessee, to Arnold W. Toler, Sr., and Annie King Toler. Attending a segregated school during his senior year, he planned to play for the school football team but could not try out due to his arm getting burned by a vat of cooking grease. Nevertheless, Toler would eventually play football at the City College of San Francisco (CCSF) when he moved to Oakland with his uncle in 1948. His talent was spotted in a gym class by an assistant coach and he was immediately asked to play.
“Nobody could block Burl because he was so strong and quick,” said Walt Jourdan, a former CCSF running back. “Ollie Matson [the team’s star player] ran three straight dive plays, and Burl stopped him all three times. Then Ollie ran a sweep, and Burl was there to meet him.” The 1948 CCSF team finished 12–0, winning a national junior college title. Once the season was over, Toler and Matson transferred to the University of San Francisco to join the legendary 1951 Dons football team.
The 1951 Dons have been described as “one of the greatest college teams of all time” by the San Francisco Chronicle. However, they never had the opportunity to compete in the Orange Bowl because they were not invited to play. At the end of the 1951 season, the Dons defeated the College of the Pacific 47–12 in a game that was supposed to determine which team would be invited to the Orange Bowl. Despite the loss, College of the Pacific was invited instead because the Dons had two African American players on their football team: Burl Toler and Ollie Matson. USF teammate Marchetti said that “when we found out Burl and Ollie weren’t going to go, we said . . . we ain’t going.” The team stood in solidarity and never thought twice about going to the Orange Bowl without Toler and Matson.
Despite not going to the Orange Bowl, Toler was drafted to play for the Cleveland Browns (later traded to the Chicago Cardinals). However, a knee injury during the college all-star game cut his playing career short. He then became an NFL official with the help of NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle. Toler officiated for 25 years, from 1965–1989. Some of these games were crucial, including Super Bowl XIV in 1980 and the 1982 AFC championship game. (He was also selected as an alternate for Super Bowl I.) He was, in fact, the African American official in any major league professional sport. Unfortunately, he was the target for many racial slurs. Jim Tunney, who worked on the same crew with Toler for 11 years, stated that Toler “[did not] allow racism to interfere in doing his job. He never mentioned it, and if it ever did occur, he just rose above it.” He was very passionate about the game, and would not allow anyone to ruin it for him.
While Burl Toler might not have become a star in the NFL, he was seen as much more than an athlete in the Fillmore community. While he officiated football games, he also taught at San Francisco’s Benjamin Franklin Middle School where he became the first black junior high school vice principal. He was eventually promoted to principal. Because of his seventeen years of service to the school, it was renamed the Burl A. Toler Campus in 2006. The school was named in his honor because of his dedication to helping the community. When asked in a 1968 interview why he became an educator he said, “I had planned to play professional football, and I was also always interested in education and students. The knee injury led me into education sooner.”
Among his many contributions to the larger San Francisco community, Toler served as San Francisco Police Department Commissioner from 1978 to 1986. He also served on the Board of Trustees at the University of San Francisco from 1987 to 1998.
As testament to Toler’s excellence as a community leader, the University of San Francisco renamed Phelan Hall to become Toler Hall in May of 2017. According to a USF-sponsored article, Burl A. Toler was chosen for the honor because he embodied “USF’s Jesuit Catholic mission, as a student, a member of the 1951 Dons’ ‘undefeated, untied and uninvited’ football team, then as a beloved father, husband, longtime San Francisco educator and well-known NFL linesman official.” With the renaming of the residence hall, Toler’s legacy is now even further solidified.
Toler was a loving father and husband. He married his wife, Melvia Woolfolk, in 1953. They had six children, three daughters and three sons, and were also the proud grandparents of eight grandchildren.
Toler’s love for football was passed down to his son and grandson. Burl Toler, Jr., played college football for UC Berkeley, and Burl Toler, Jr.’s son, Burl Toler III, played in the NFL. Toler III gained inspiration from his grandfather’s advice: “Do your best and the best will be good enough.” After Burl A. Toler’s passing in 2009, all of San Francisco came to appreciate his proud legacy.
— Betsy Jacobo and Grace Jackson
Adams, Bruce. “Cal’s Burl Toler III carries on great family tradition.” SFGate. 10 Nov 2001.
“Burl Toler dies at 81; first African American game official in NFL history.” The Los Angeles Times. 18 Aug 2009.
Fitzgerald, Tom. “Burl Toler, NFL’s first black official, dies.” SFGate. 18 Aug 2009.
Schultz, Mark. “Burl Toler blazed a trail 50 years ago.” Football Zebras. 7 Feb 2016.
“Toler Hall Dedication.” University of San Francisco. 27 Apr 2017.
Weber, Bruce. “Burl Toler, First Black N.F.L. Official, Dies at 81.” The New York Times. 20 Aug 2009.