Former NFL official Burl Toler dies

August 17, 2009 7:17:04 PM PDT
Burl Toler, the first African-American official in NFL history who went on to work one Super Bowl in a distinguished career, has died. He was 81.

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Burl Toler was a trailblazer on so many levels. The 81-year-old was the first African-American principal of a middle school in San Francisco, the first black official in the history of the NFL and the first to referee a Super Bowl.

The father of six led by example.

"He always told us, he felt so strong, he said as long as I do my job well enough, I won't be the last," said said Toler's son Burl Toler Jr.

Toler's life was the stuff of legends. Sports fans know his role as a star player on one of the best college football teams ever.

The 1951 USF Dons were undefeated and invited to play in a bowl game, but only if they left Toler and the other black player and the other black player, Ollie Matson behind. Their teammates made the unprecedented decision to say no.

Hall of Famer Bob St. Clair was on that team.

"It was so obvious that we weren't going to play without our teammates. We didn't care what the hell color they were, this was family," said St. Clair.

Kristine Setting Clark considers it the beginning of the civil rights movement on the college level. She has written a book that's headed to Hollywood.

She also pushed successfully to have a school named after Toler, who became a barrier-breaking educator, and a role model for students after an injury ended his pro football dreams.

"To become a principal he had to have a lot going for him at that time when things were a lot different, and I really admire him for that. God, I miss him," said Setting Clark.

Last year, Toler was inducted into the Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame, a highlight for the pioneer.

"I'm going to miss him dearly," said St. Clair.

"We'll always hold him in high esteem for the person that he was," said Toler Jr.

The family is now making arrangements for his funeral services which will be held next week at USF.

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