Some have hailed it the best college football team ever. Nine of its players were drafted, five played in the National Football League Pro Bowl and three are even in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
But this University of San Francisco (USF) squad never got the chance to cap off its 1951 undefeated season with a post-season bowl game win because it refused to leave behind its two African-American players.
In honor of the team’s bold stand against racism, the University of San Francisco awarded an honorary degree to that 1951 team Friday morning during its sesquicentennial commencement ceremonies.
“The University of San Francisco is proud to honor its 1951 football team at the close of the institution’s 150th anniversary year,” said Bill Hogan, the university’s athletic director, at the ceremony. “The team members exemplify the values that remain at the core of USF’s identity as a Jesuit Catholic university: dedication to a common good, rather than the interests of any one individual; respect for the dignity and worth of every human being; and an unwavering commitment to excellence on the field, in the classroom, and in one’s personal and professional life.”
USF President Stephen Privett awarded the degree to the 10 players from the team who were in attendance, including Burl Toler, the first African-American to become an NFL official. Some say that Toler, a lineman, was the best player on the team, but a knee injury in a college football all-star game ruined his shot at the NFL.
The other African-American on the team was the All-American Ollie Matson. Before going to the NFL, Matson won a bronze medal in the 400-meter race and a silver medal in the 1,600-meter relay as a member of the 1952 U.S. Olympic team. Then Matson, a running back, played in the NFL for the Chicago Cardinals, Los Angeles Rams, Detroit Lions and Philadelphia Eagles. The Cardinals traded Matson to the Rams for an unprecedented nine players. He was invited to six NFL pro bowls, while gaining close to 13,000 all-purpose yards in his career.
Matson did not attend the event because he was ill, according to Gary McDonald, USF’s director of media relations.
The team had already been recognized by the U.S. government.
In 2000, the U.S. Senate agreed to a resolution that applauded the squad for its “determination, commitment and integrity both on and off the playing field.” And this bill, which was introduced by U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., acknowledged that the “treatment endured by this team was wrong and that recognition for its accomplishments is long overdue.”
The story of this extraordinary team is told in the 2002 book: Undefeated, Untied and Uninvited by Kristine Setting Clark.
During its 1951 season, the squad had a perfect record with no ties in the regular season. Therefore, it expected an invitation to a postseason bowl, but the invitation did not come. Then, it was advised to drop its two African-American players so it could receive a bowl invitation, according to USF officials.
The team ignored that advice and consequently was not invited to a bowl game.
Nevertheless, this undefeated team has still been placed among the best college football teams of all time. Matson, Gino Marchetti and Bob St. Clair are in the pro football Hall of Fame.
Also, USF’s sports information director at the time, Pete Rozelle, later became the commissioner of the NFL and was inducted in the Hall of Fame.
The late Rozelle once said: “If we had an expansion franchise, I would start it with just that team. They were so great!”
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