Black History Month

NFL pioneer Burl Toler's life will inspire Bay Area sports fans


Burl Toler’s son spotted something he had never before seen as his father packed for one of his routine 36-hour trips to officiate an NFL game.

And the significance of what young Martel Toler saw that day would not become clear until many years later.

Burl Toler became the first Black NFL official in 1965. He spent 25 seasons as a field judge and head linesman. Nobody but Toler really knew what he dealt with during a quarter-century of work in NFL stadiums across every section of America.

And his children can only imagine because Toler never spoke a word of the inescapable racism he faced along the way.

But when Martel saw a plastic shell that fit inside his father’s officiating hat, he asked for an explanation.

“He said there’d been times when people had thrown stuff at him,” Martel remembered. “It looked like a normal hat when he had it on, but I guess it was a little protective shield that he had.”

Watch NBC Sports Bay Area's full Burl Toler feature on YouTube

Burl Toler, who died more than a decade ago, was the perfect man to traverse chasms. The man who made ends meet as the first Black toll-taker on the Bay Bridge also built bridges of a different kind.

His memorial service on Aug. 26, 2009, at Saint Ignatius Church on the campus of the University of San Francisco drew an overflow crowd of mourners and admirers.

“The church was full, rolling out the church, because not only was he a great athlete, great official, he was a great teacher and administrator,” former long-time NFL referee Mike Carey said. “He broke barriers everywhere he went. The outpouring of people who just loved that man, it was very heart-warming.”

Toler stands as one of the most important and transcendent figures in Bay Area history.

His influence reached far beyond the sporting world. And his legacy is carried on today by his three daughters and three sons, his 10 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

He touched thousands of other lives as an educator, rising to become the first Black secondary school principal in the history of the San Francisco School District. He was also a San Francisco police commissioner, on the University of San Francisco Board of Trustees, and served various other leadership roles in the community.

“All these different things are prime examples that his legacy lives on forever,” said his grandson, Burl Toler III, the wide receivers coach at Cal.

“I think he was an activist. He is a legend. He was a superhero. The best part is that he did it, not for that recognition, but because he knew things needed to be done the right way.”

“If you can show me a man who has never made a mistake, I will show you a man who has never made a decision”

Those who knew him well remember the mantras he repeated. They were not cliches. His words served as his guiding principles. Everything about the man was genuine and authentic.

Toler often said he may have been the first, but if he did his job the right way, he would not be the last.

It took 55 years from the time Toler first stepped on the field as an official for the NFL to assign a crew composed entirely of African American officials – something Carey points out should have happened randomly many times over the years.

Referee Jerome Boger led his on-field crew of seven onto Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida, for the Buccaneers’ Week 11 game against the Los Angeles Rams in 2020.

“He had a huge smile,” Carey remembered of Toler. “And it would’ve gone from ear to ear, because it was a great accomplishment. But it was so long overdue.”

Another officiating first occurred on that same field on Feb. 7. Down judge Sarah Thomas became the first female to officiate a Super Bowl when Tampa Bay and the Kansas City Chiefs met in Super Bowl LV.


That was all Toler wanted throughout his life. And he demanded it in his typically understated way. He was the perfect person to be first – regardless of what field he was blazing a trail.

Then-NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle knew exactly what he was doing when he offered Toler a position as the first African American on-field official in all of North American professional sports during the heights of the Civil Rights Movement.

Rozelle knew exactly the kind of man who must be chosen to fulfill that job and live up to that standard.

And he knew Toler had everything that was required to handle the challenges.

“Pete Rozelle is the reason my dad was chosen to be the first (Black official) in the National Football League,” said Burl Toler Jr., the eldest son of Burl and Melvia Toler. “He knew him as a person, knew him as an athlete. I think Pete knew what he was getting in my father, and it was kind of a no-brainer that it was time in 1965 to bring my dad into the NFL.

“And I think, I don’t know, I’ve never talked to Pete about it and, of course, Pete has passed. I’m sure Pete would say he made a pretty good decision.”

Rozelle was sports information director at the University of San Francisco when he first got to know Toler, one of the stars of the Dons’ legendary unbeaten, united football team of 1951.

“Do the right thing”

Toler grew up in Memphis, a city beset by racial tension. His mother, Annie King Toler, and father, Arnold Toler, wanted a better life for him. They sent him to Berkeley to live with his mom’s brother, businessman Louis King.

He enrolled at City College of San Francisco, never having played football in his life. A coach saw him on campus and persuaded him to give football a try. Toler agreed.

He combined rare size, strength and athleticism along with determination and being a quick study. Toler was stationed at linebacker and was told, simply, to tackle the man with the football during the first practice before the 1948 season.

He did it once, making it look effortless, much to the bewilderment of the ballcarrier and everyone watching.

He did it again. And again.

“They were like, ‘Who is this guy?’” said Susan Toler Carr, one of Burl’s three daughters. “After a few tackles, that’s how they met. ‘Hi, I’m Ollie,’ And, ‘I’m Burl,’ and they became best friends from there.”

Ollie Matson was already an established star, clearly destined for football greatness. Toler showed from the first moments on the field that he was a natural with an unlimited future.

The two men were teammates at City College. Together, they went on to get educated and play football at USF. They were best friends off the field. That connection lasted until Toler’s passing in 2009. Matson died two years later.

The USF team was the stuff of legends. Matson, Bob St. Clair and Gino Marchetti would eventually earn busts in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Eight players would go on to play in the NFL, including five who were chosen to play in at least one Pro Bowl.

And Toler might have been the best of the bunch, many of his former teammates agreed. He was a team captain and the leading tackler. He would be considered a prototype NFL linebacker even in today’s game.

The Dons appeared destined for a prestigious bowl game that would have provided the university with much-needed funds to keep the football program afloat. After capping a 9-0 regular season with a 20-2 victory over Loyola at the Rose Bowl, USF received a conditional invitation to the Orange Bowl.

The condition? Toler and Matson, the team’s two Black players, would not be allowed to play in the game.

There was nothing, really, to talk about. The Dons declined the invitation. There was no thought given to playing a game if any members of the team were going to be excluded. The team was a team – and skin color was immaterial.

“We told them to go to hell,” the late St. Clair said to thunderous approval at a 2011 event to commemorate the 60-year anniversary of the team.

“These guys said, ‘No, if Burl and Ollie can’t go to the game, we’re not going to go,’ ” Susan said. “That was the end of the football season. They chose compassion and what was right over money and fame, and they all were able to go on and do their things in life.”

Faced with a financial crisis, USF disbanded the football program after that season, never to again play at the NCAA Division I level.

The last time that unbreakable team got together was at the 2008 Fiesta Bowl, where the Dons were honored during an emotional halftime tribute in Tempe, Arizona.

“What I saw was brotherly love,” Susan said. “It didn’t matter what they looked like. You could tell there was an earnest amount of love they had and support and admiration. They always said, ‘Your dad was one of the best – not just on the field but in character.’”

“Don’t let other people determine how you act”

Like many of his teammates, Toler appeared destined for fame in the NFL. But fate had other plans for him.

He sustained a badly broken leg in an all-star game that pitted the best in college football against the NFL champions, the Los Angeles Rams, at Soldier Field in Chicago. The college all-stars were in a tightly contested game and Toler was having an exceptional game, when he sustained a devastating injury on a low, blind-side block.

He was drafted with the No. 105 overall pick to play for the Cleveland Browns. But after a long stay in a Chicago hospital, he never played football again. Those closest to him never heard him express any bitterness or regret about the suddenly, devastating end of his football career.

“He probably used it as inspiration,” said his son, Burl Jr. “He had to stay about a month in Chicago. He couldn’t fly until he sufficiently healed. When he came back, he never looked back. He never talked about what could’ve or should’ve been. He used it as inspiration to become an educator.”

Toler returned to the Bay Area and initially worked as a toll-taker. He graduated from USF with a bachelor’s degree in 1952 and a master’s in 1966. He thrived during a long teaching and administrative career at Benjamin Franklin Middle School.

He became the first Black secondary school principal in the San Francisco School District. He continued to work in education, impacting young lives while traveling the country on weekends to officiate NFL games.

“When he was elected to be an official, it was at the height of the Civil Rights Movement in 1965,” Martel said. “But he didn’t think twice about accepting the position, because that’s the kind of person he was.”

Toler was selected to officiate as head linesman for Super Bowl XIV at the Rose Bowl in the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 31-19 win over the Los Angeles Rams on Jan. 20, 1980.

Carey entered the league in 1990, the year after Toler retired from on-field work. Toler kept close contact with Carey and many other officials over the next eight years as an NFL observer and mentor. Carey later became the first African American referee in a Super Bowl, when he worked as the head of the officiating crew at Super Bowl XLII.

Carey reflects now on his crew having the games of their lives that day, Feb. 3, 2008, for the New York Giants’ 17-14 victory over the New England Patriots in Glendale, Arizona. He might only have been in that position because Toler proved to be so capable in leading the way.

Carey said he cannot even begin to understand what Toler must have faced on a weekly basis throughout his career.

“When you think back to what he had to go through on that undefeated team at USF, that had to be horrendous,” Carey said. “Every stadium, you walk through a tunnel that’s lined with fans. And you get some very interesting comments as you go through now.

“But I can’t imagine what he went through, being the first African American (official) to show up in any stadium, in any sport. And I think that’s when you get those who are trying to thwart progress do their best to try to undermine whoever is that first one to break that barrier. And, boy, did he stand up tall.”

Burl Toler knew that – as unfair as it was – many others would be judged by his actions. He approached his job with the utmost professionalism, even scolding some of his former USF teammates that he could not socialize with them when he was on the field to officiate one of their NFL games.

“He knew he was there for a purpose, which was to do a job and do the job as the first,” Burl Jr. said. “And his response always was if he goes out and referees a good game and is fair in his responses, even though he’s Black, as long as he does his job well, he won’t be the last.”

“Do your best and your best will be good enough”

Burl Toler was a lot of things to a lot of people. But his sons and daughters remember him, above all else, as a father and husband.

“He always wanted to do his best as an educator, as a referee, as a college All-American,” Burl Jr. said. “But I think the thing that really drove him was his ability to be a father. And not just a father, but a good father and a presence when the opportunity arose.

“He was not only the father to all six of us, it was to students, family, friends and mere acquaintances who also looked to him as a father as well.”

Greg Toler is writing a book about his father’s life, but he said it is impossible to tell the story of Burl Toler without highlighting his supporting wife, Melvia, who preceded him in death.

“She was really the MVP, to be honest,” Greg said. “All Hall of Famers have to have somebody to block and tackle for them, so to speak. And she was the one who really allowed him to excel in everything he did. So she’s going to be a very big part of the book, as well.”

Daughter Valerie is the eldest of the six siblings. Her father lived with her in his final two years as he battled Alzheimer’s.

“They were pretty much inseparable," Valerie said. "She would pack my dad’s clothes every Friday night and make sure he had everything and drop him off at the airport. He left Saturday morning and would come back Sunday night.”

Burl and Melvia created a loving and compassionate environment inside their home on Orizaba Avenue in the Ingleside District of San Francisco.

Toler was a commissioner of the San Francisco Police Department from 1978-96 and served on USF’s Board of Trustees from 1987-98. He was inducted into USF’s Athletic Hall of Fame in 1959.

The former Benjamin Franklin Middle School campus, now the home of Gateway Charter School, was named in his honor in 2006. Toler was enshrined into the Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame in 2008. An on-campus residential dorm at USF was named for him posthumously in 2017.

“It’s monumental,” Carey said. “I don’t care what race you are. To have those credentials that he has . . . who has that? And for African Americans, it fulfills that dream that we all hope for, which is give us a chance. Like all Americans, just give us a chance and we’ll shine just like anybody else does.

“Burl Toler, as a man, was very unique. You look at any segment of his life and you’d be thrilled to have one-tenth of the success that he had.”

“Children learn most of their first character lessons in the home”

Those accolades, busts and structures named in his honor serve as markers for a life well-lived. The greatest testament to Burl Toler’s legacy are the family members to whom he showed that anything is possible.

“I’m very close with all my siblings, my nieces and nephews,” said daughter Jennifer. “My own son, he knows his grandpa. He knows everything his grandpa stood for, what he’s done for his community.

"Being super athletic, he reminds me of my dad a lot. He asks questions all the time. I instill in my son, J.J., the importance of what his grandfather and grandmother did for their community and for their family and how family is important and one of the top priorities.”

Justin Carr, son of Susan and husband Darrell, created a special bond with his grandfather. Though separated by nearly 68 years, they were unmistakably kindred spirits.

“They were going to name Benjamin Franklin after my dad and the whole family was at the event,” Susan said. “Justin said, ‘I want a suit just like Papa.’ He was probably 9 years old. We got an old-man suit for our little son.”

Justin wanted to wear the same style of shoes as his grandfather. Duly impressed with his grandson’s appearance, Burl Toler told the precocious young man, “I have a tie for you, too.”

Said Susan, “Justin was so proud to look like his grandpa.”

Justin wanted to be an architect. He was active in all aspects of Harvard-Westlake High School. He was a student national merit scholar, Junior Olympics swimmer, visual and performing artist and a leader of the Black Leadership Awareness and Culture Club.

Three-and-a-half years after his grandfather passed away, 16-year-old Justin lost consciousness during a swim practice. He died of an undiagnosed heart condition, idiopathic hypertrophic cardiomyopathy.

True to the lasting impact of the family’s patriarch, Justin left a legacy of his own.

At 4 years old, he wished for world peace when given the opportunity to bless the food before a meal. Justin always wanted to help underserved kids – even as a child himself, his mother says.

His parents established a foundation in his memory, Justin Carr Wants World Peace. The non-profit organization provides free heart screenings for youth and young adults, art and peace programs and awards scholarships to grade school students who demonstrate excellence and promise in the areas of visual arts, performing arts and/or academic achievement.

“It’s hard to have them both gone, but the times we had together were beautiful in memories,” Susan said. “It doesn’t replace the loss that we have, but knowing we had those precious times, and they were so alike in so many ways.”

It is difficult to find anyone who accomplished as much as Burl Toler in as many different areas.

He never spoke of his feats or the obstacles he overcame that were set up to prevent him along the way.

The greatest personal pride he experienced was in the successes and good deeds of his family members.

He provided the opportunities. He provided the examples. He instilled the drive and determination.

He quietly endured a lot of hardships along the way, from Memphis to the Bay Area to every NFL city, in order to make the path – albeit not perfect – perhaps a little less daunting for those who followed.

His name, Burl Toler, carries on in the family through his son, who has forged a long career as an architect and project manager after playing linebacker at Cal in the mid-1970s. Burl Toler Jr. was named as the winner of the 2018 Glenn Seaborg Award, presented annually to a former Cal football player for representing the Cal principles and traditions of excellence in academics, athletics, leadership and attitude.

The name carries on through Burl Toler’s grandson, a four-year letter-winner as a Cal wide receiver who routinely was asked by officials whether he was related to the Burl Toler. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in social welfare and a concentration in sociology, he spent time with the Raiders and Washington of the NFL. He now serves as a mentor for young men as a college coach.

The name is carried on through Burl Toler’s great-grandson, son of Burl III, who recently turned 3 years old. The late author Alex Haley once wrote, "In every conceivable manner, the family is link to our past, bridge to our future."

Each generation of Burl Abron Toler is distinguished by a nickname. Senior was B.T.; Junior is Butch; Burl Toler III is Burly; and the youngest is Bo.

“They called him B.T.” Susan said of her father. “I thought it was for Burl Toler, but they said it was for ‘Big Time.’ And he said, ‘No, that’s not me.’”

As much as he did not seek attention and actively tried to deflect or downplay his influential role within his community and beyond, Burl Toler was unequivocally Big Time.

As the years pass and America still faces obvious challenges and barriers in achieving racial equality, greater perspective and appreciation is gained. Burl Toler stature only grows as his memory remains fresh and his footprints grow in size.

“(We) definitely appreciate all that he stood for, all that he was to our family,” Jennifer said. “He was the rock. As we look at it now, he is just an even bigger rock. He’s that mountain.

“Everything that he projected as a human being, it just brings to light even more so how we appreciate all that he has done and that he continues to do through his legacy. I’m so appreciative of him and will always be.”

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