In 1951, the University of San Francisco football team was living out a Cinderella season the school had never seen in its history.
This small all-male school’s success was as unlikely as it was unexpected. Finishing the regular season undefeated, the team was poised to make a run at the national championship.
But despite its success on the field, the football team struggled to cover its mounting expenses. Keeping up with teams from bigger schools wasn’t cheap — USF’s football team had tallied a $70,000 deficit that year alone. USF’s ability to save not just its season, but the team’s future, hinged on the type of financial windfall that only a bowl game provides.
Shortly after their last game, the USF team got their bowl game invitation, but with it came a caveat:
In order for USF to play in the Orange Bowl, and collect the game’s $50,000, two players — Ollie Matson and Burl Toler — would be excluded for no other reason than the color of their skin.
The USF 1951 team. Image via San Francisco Foghorn/Flickr.
As one of the few desegregated teams in the top tier of college football, this wasn’t the first time that the 1951 USF team had experienced racism.
"Our first inkling of it came a year before when we went to play in Tulsa," Bob Weibel, a white player on the team, told the NFL. "They wouldn't let Burl and Ollie stay in the team hotel because it was white-only. They had to go across town and stay at the other one."
Racial slurs from opposing teams were also common.
But the players from San Francisco weren’t aware of how embedded racism truly was throughout institutions — like college football — until they got their ultimatum.
"These guys were very naïve," Kristine Setting Clark, author of the 2002 account "Undefeated, Untied, and Uninvited,” told the NFL. “To them, there was no color barrier. They looked at things like what happened in the Orange Bowl and thought, What's wrong with these people?"
Despite the success of Jackie Robinson knocking down the color barrier in baseball, systematic racism in sports was the rule, rather than the exception, in 1951. And the expectation at the time was that USF would need to bend to the will of the bowl organizers to continue their season and save their program.
The ultimatum could have driven the team apart, but instead, it brought the players closer together.
The team’s response didn’t take long. Within minutes after arriving home and learning of the unacceptable stipulation to partake in a bowl game, the response was singular and resounding:
“We told them to go to hell," said Bill Henneberry, USF’s backup quarterback that season. "If Ollie and Burl didn't go, none of us were going. We walked out, and that was the end of it."
At the time, the team’s act of solidarity didn’t serve as a springboard for change or progress. In fact, the entire series of events went unreported and undiscussed for decades.
With their unequivocal response, the USF football team had sealed its fate — the program, now out of money, shuttered prior to the next season.
The Orange Bowl announced that it was the team’s “soft schedule” that cost USF a chance to play in the game.
And San Francisco sports journalist Ira Blue, who had been covering the Dons’ season, reported from his sources that the Gator Bowl, Sugar Bowl, and Orange Bowl — all steeped in “Southern tradition” — mutually agreed to overlook teams with black players.
It wasn’t until 1990 that the vast majority of sports fans learned the true story.
39 years after the team’s decision was made, Sports Illustrated chronicled USF’s season and the fallout from their trying decision in “Best Team You’ve Never Met,” the first account of the events shared with a broad audience. The players and their courage were finally getting their due, albeit long after media coverage could have effected any real change in the sports world.
That feature proved to be the first of many later celebrations of the team’s quiet integrity in the face of grave consequences.
In 2006, the surviving team members were flown out by the Emerald Bowl so they could be honored at halftime. Two years later, Fiesta Bowl officials extended the same invitation.
Both the NFL and ESPN raced to turn the Dons’ story into a film. ESPN won, putting out “The ‘51 Dons” in 2014.
MT @usfdonsap: #USFDons Royalty in the house. Members of #51Dons at the Hillop Awards w/ the Spirit of '51 Award. http://t.co/gM54yDnikJ— USF Dons Athletics (@USF Dons Athletics)1399257092.0
Many USF players from the 1951 team didn’t live long enough to enjoy the belated honors bestowed upon the team, but their mark on sports history remains nonetheless.
Their story conjures the very definition of integrity: doing what’s right regardless of the consequences. At the time, few would have faulted the team for accepting the conditions and taking the bowl bid. But the 1951 San Francisco Dons football players made their choice — because to them, the alternative was worse than the end of their football team.
“When you look back on it, I guess you could say we really were a team that was ahead of our time," said USF’s Henneberry in an NFL interview.
This story was produced as part of a campaign called "17 Days" with DICK'S Sporting Goods. These stories aim to shine a light on real occurrences of sports bringing people together.