How a College Football Team Made a Stand Against Racism
A perfect season. It’s the dream of every athlete, right? No injuries, no losses, just the ability to win and keep winning.
In 1951, the United States was a country plagued by segregation and prejudice. 1776 was the year the Declaration of Independence was signed in the U.S, where it was written “all men are created equal”, yet African Americans were still considered ‘second class citizens’. The San Fransisco Dons were years ahead of the nation, fielding its first integrated American football team in 1930. The 1951 University of San Fransisco football team with its white and black athletes playing together was rare, but reflected the values of the university and city.
It was one of the most dominant college football teams in its era, with 9 players going on to play NFL, and three players inducted into the Hall of Fame. Under the guidance of head coach John Kuharick, the Dons went on an unbeaten 9-0 perfect record to finish the season. The team was so dominant, toward the end of every game, fans would pull out their handkerchiefs and sing Lead Belly’s classic song ‘Goodnight Irene’ to the opposition.
Following their 20-2 final season win over Loyola of Los Angeles, the daylight train rolled into Third and Townsend Street Station, packed full of USF players. Upon arrival back into San Fransisco, the team was set to receive their prize for finishing the 1951 season with a perfect 9-0 record. The prize would have been an invite to compete in prestigious football games, where the best teams are invited. It was highly sought by any college team in North America.
As the players emptied from the train, they met coach Kuharick. Coach Kuharick had news for the team, but it differed from what was expected. Of the three major Bowls in the south, The Gator, Sugar, and Orange bowl; only the Orange Bowl extended the invite. Here was a team that had the perfect record season, and only invited to one game, where there were conditions attached. They were told that if the Dons were going to participate in the Orange Bowl, they had to leave behind their African American stars, Ollie Matson and Burl Toler.
The players were dumbfounded. They stared at Coach Kuharick as he stood quietly, understanding the gut-wrenching pain the team was going through. They gathered together for a few minutes and decided what would happen. After some discussion, the Dons met with the Orange Bowl and had made their decision. White American backup quarterback Bill Henneberry yelled; “Go to hell, If Ollie and Burl can’t go, none of us will”. The entire team then walked out, and that was the end of it. The USF team immediately refused, making it clear that their relationships with two of the most talented teams’ players, meant more to them than playing in a history-defining game. It so happened to be, that the USF’s decision was kept under wraps by the Orange Bowl, and Georgia Tech was selected to play Baylor, with the motive to make it look like the USF Dons were never chosen at all.
The most astonishing aspect of the decision the Dons made in 1951’ wasn’t that they passed on the Orange Bowl, but the team never realised the magnitude of their actions. The decision to side together as a team was before the influence of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King. USF was already losing $70,000 per year on its football program. Participating in the Orange Bowl would have covered the bills owed.
To this day, the remaining players still talk about the decision made in 1951 during their annual lunches. Before the football team announced the decision that USF Dons would not attend the Orange Bowl, Coach Kuharick had already resigned and moved on to coach NFL’s Chicago Cardinals. The senior players of the team had already started thinking about looking for jobs or fighting in the Korean War. The players who still had remaining eligibility, more notably the younger players, either stayed in school to honour their scholarships, or transferred to a different university.
In 2008, during one of the 51’ Dons annual luncheons, One of the remaining team members; Dick Colombini noticed a different crowd. Colombini recognised a few people wearing yellow jackets. Midway through the lunch, a spokesman for the group got up and announced that he was from the Fiesta Bowl. The Fiesta Bowl was created in 1971, a few decades after the USF Dons perfect record season. The man spoke about how unjust it was for the Orange Bowl to treat the African American players and team the way they did. He wanted to try and make amends, announcing they would invite all living 1951’ Dons to join them in a halftime tribute during the up and coming Fiesta Bowl, held in Arizona. The players took the opportunity and were flown to Phoenix. They were treated with respect, staying in nice hotels, eating at nice restaurants; being wine, and dined. After the treatment in Phoenix, it left Colombini thinking “What’s next?”
It wasn’t long after, NFL Films came and talked to the group about a movie, with ESPN calling the members with their idea. ESPN’s idea came off the back of Kristine Clark’s book, “Undefeated, Untied and Uninvited”, which gave an insight into the history of racism and segregation of the USF Dons in 1951. Clark had pushed George W. Bush and Barack Obama’s administrations to bring the team out to the Whitehouse for a visit. She wanted the country and world to know how extraordinary the 51’ Dons were because their decision wasn’t about making a statement. It was about doing the right thing. It was about fighting for your friends, supporting your family, and instilling values within yourself and a community to stick together.
The documentary, titled 51’ Dons aired during Black History Month in 2014 by ESPN Films.
From that 51’ Football team, the two African American stars achieved great things in their own right. Burl Toler became the first black NFL official in 1965, and Ollie Matson won a bronze medal in the 400-meters and silver in the 4×400 meter relay at the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, Finland
Racism and segregation are apparent all over the world. Stories like the 51′ Dons are why we should stick together for what’s right, because great and powerful things come from it.