USF renames Phelan Hall in honor of football hero Burl Toler

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- At the University of San Francisco, a man who broke down barriers for African Americans was honored Tuesday with a building named in his memory.

Burl Toler lived a life full of firsts, on and off the football field.

It's a special birthday for the man who would have been 89 Tuesday.

"He is looking down with pride, would be shedding a tear today," Toler's son Burl Jr said.

Toler was one of two African-American players on the University of San Francisco's undefeated 1951 football team.

"We thought we would've had the Orange Bowl bid that year, 44, and they said, 'No, you leave your two black players at home, we might invite you,' and we said, 'No way,'" Thomas told ABC7 News.

Giving up a shot at glory to stand up for Toler and his roommate Ollie Matson, the team earned its place in history, and so did Toler.

"And that's why his story needs to be told repeatedly," Thomas added.

Toler was a friend to former Mayor Willie Brown, who watched him become the city's first African-American middle school principal and the NFL's first African-American official. "Anytime I did anything that was good, I advertised it," Brown said. "But Berl didn't advertise, he didn't really have to."

VIDEO: Burl Toler lights up the football field for USF
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Burl Toler is seen with his teammates playing for the University of San Francisco in this file footage.

Though Toler would go on to be recognized as a pioneer, his teammates didn't think of their decision as making history. They just thought of it as doing the right thing.

"There was no question. We're one team, we all go or nobody goes," Thomas said.

Ralph Thomas later became Toler's godfather when he converted to Catholicism.

"He embodied the Jesuit values, and held God close, as he always told us. He never left home without him," Toler's son Gregory said.

So students felt Toler was a better fit for a building that had been named for San Francisco Mayor James Phelan, an opponent of Japanese immigration a century ago.

"We admitted women in the 1920s," USF President Father Paul Fitzgerald told ABC7 News. "We were fully integrated by 1930."

With a middle school campus already named for Toler, a new generation of college students will know his name and his legacy, but his own family says a piece of that legacy belongs to his teammates.

"It's still an honor to see those guys who stood up for a cause and that cause still resonates today," Toler's son Burl Jr. said.
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