They were asked to bar their black players from a major game. Their response was perfect.
True
DICK'S Sporting Goods

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.

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.

True

When Sue Hoppin was in college, she met the man she was going to marry. "I was attending the University of Denver, and he was at the Air Force Academy," she says. "My dad had also attended the University of Denver and warned me not to date those flyboys from the Springs."

"He didn't say anything about marrying one of them," she says. And so began her life as a military spouse.

The life brings some real advantages, like opportunities to live abroad — her family got to live all around the US, Japan, and Germany — but it also comes with some downsides, like having to put your spouse's career over your own goals.

"Though we choose to marry someone in the military, we had career goals before we got married, and those didn't just disappear."

Career aspirations become more difficult to achieve, and progress comes with lots of starts and stops. After experiencing these unique challenges firsthand, Sue founded an organization to help other military spouses in similar situations.

Sue had gotten a degree in international relations because she wanted to pursue a career in diplomacy, but for fourteen years she wasn't able to make any headway — not until they moved back to the DC area. "Eighteen months later, many rejections later, it became apparent that this was going to be more challenging than I could ever imagine," she says.

Eighteen months is halfway through a typical assignment, and by then, most spouses are looking for their next assignment. "If I couldn't find a job in my own 'hometown' with multiple degrees and a great network, this didn't bode well for other military spouses," she says.

She's not wrong. Military spouses spend most of their lives moving with their partners, which means they're often far from family and other support networks. When they do find a job, they often make less than their civilian counterparts — and they're more likely to experience underemployment or unemployment. In fact, on some deployments, spouses are not even allowed to work.

Before the pandemic, military spouse unemployment was 22%. Since the pandemic, it's expected to rise to 35%.

Sue eventually found a job working at a military-focused nonprofit, and it helped her get the experience she needed to create her own dedicated military spouse program. She wrote a book and started saving up enough money to start the National Military Spouse Network (NMSN), which she founded in 2010 as the first organization of its kind.

"I founded the NMSN to help professional military spouses develop flexible careers they could perform from any location."

"Over the years, the program has expanded to include a free digital magazine, professional development events, drafting annual White Papers and organizing national and local advocacy to address the issues of most concern to the professional military spouse community," she says.

Not only was NMSN's mission important to Sue on a personal level she also saw it as part of something bigger than herself.

"Gone are the days when families can thrive on one salary. Like everyone else, most military families rely on two salaries to make ends meet. If a military spouse wants or needs to work, they should be able to," she says.

"When less than one percent of our population serves in the military," she continues, "we need to be able to not only recruit the best and the brightest but also retain them."

"We lose out as a nation when service members leave the force because their spouse is unable to find employment. We see it as a national security issue."

"The NMSN team has worked tirelessly to jumpstart the discussion and keep the challenges affecting military spouses top of mind. We have elevated the conversation to Congress and the White House," she continues. "I'm so proud of the fact that corporations, the government, and the general public are increasingly interested in the issues affecting military spouses and recognizing the employment roadblocks they unfairly have faced."

"We have collectively made other people care, and in doing so, we elevated the issues of military spouse unemployment to a national and global level," she adds. "In the process, we've also empowered military spouses to advocate for themselves and our community so that military spouse employment issues can continue to remain at the forefront."

Not only has NMSN become a sought-after leader in the military spouse employment space, but Sue has also seen the career she dreamed of materializing for herself. She was recently invited to participate in the public re-launch of Joining Forces, a White House initiative supporting military and veteran families, with First Lady Dr. Jill Biden.

She has also had two of her recommendations for practical solutions introduced into legislation just this year. She was the first in the Air Force community to show leadership the power of social media to reach both their airmen and their military families.

That is why Sue is one of Tory Burch's "Empowered Women" this year. The $5,000 donation will be going to The Madeira School, a school that Sue herself attended when she was in high school because, she says, "the lessons I learned there as a student pretty much set the tone for my personal and professional life. It's so meaningful to know that the donation will go towards making a Madeira education more accessible to those who may not otherwise be able to afford it and providing them with a life-changing opportunity."

Most military children will move one to three times during high school so having a continuous four-year experience at one high school can be an important gift. After traveling for much of her formative years, Sue attended Madeira and found herself "in an environment that fostered confidence and empowerment. As young women, we were expected to have a voice and advocate not just for ourselves, but for those around us."

To learn more about Tory Burch and Upworthy's Empowered Women program visit https://www.toryburch.com/empoweredwomen/. Nominate an inspiring woman in your community today!

Vanna White appeared on "The Price Is Right" in 1980.

Vanna White has been a household name in the United States for decades, which is kind of hilarious when you consider how she gained her fame and fortune. Since 1982, the former model and actress has made millions walking back and forth turning letters (and later simply touching them—yay technology) on the game show "Wheel of Fortune."

That's it. Walking back and forth in a pretty evening gown, flipping letters and clapping for contestants. More on that job in a minute…

As a member of Gen X, television game shows like "Wheel of Fortune" and "The Price is Right" send me straight back to my childhood. Watching this clip from 1980 of Vanna White competing on "The Price is Right" two years before she started turning letters on "Wheel of Fortune" is like stepping into a time machine. Bob Barker's voice, the theme music, the sound effects—I swear I'm home from school sick, lying on the ugly flowered couch with my mom checking my forehead and bringing me Tang.

This video has it all: the early '80s hairstyles, a fresh-faced Vanna White and Bob Barker's casual sexism that would never in a million years fly today.

Keep Reading Show less