One of the most legendary teams in college football history was the 1951 University of San Francisco Dons. Over the previous three years, they formed a bond which would prove to be unbreakable in one of the most unique challenges a team could possibly face. Undefeated and untied, they faced the temptation of playing in a bowl game without two of their players just because of the color of their skin. They chose not to play and a team full of talented players would be lost to history as it disbanded the following year. This is the remarkable story of a band of brothers who decided to take a stand for social justice, no matter the cost.
Gino Marchetti was the son of Italian immigrants. Born in Smithers, West Virginia but raised in Antioch, California, Marchetti learned the harsh reality of racism in America from his parent’s experience. While his father became an American citizen, his mother never did and by the time World War II began, his family was banished outside of the city for fear that she may be a spy for Benito Mussolini. Marchetti saw the pain in his mother’s eyes and heard her cries of shame for how her family was forced to live because of her. He enlisted in the Army after dropping out of high school and fought in the Battle of the Bulge. At a young age, he saw what racism could do to the world as he fought the Axis powers. He saw things a young man should never see and he was determined to make this world a better place.
He returned home from the war and within a year was playing football for Modesto Junior College. After a year, he caught the eye of Joe Kuharich, the coach of the University of San Francisco Dons. Kuharich was a former guard for Notre Dame and the Chicago Cardinals and had previously coached the offensive lines of the Pittsburgh Steelers and USF. He understood the meaning and the value of brotherhood and constantly preached loyalty. Marchetti joined fellow lineman Bob St. Clair who was a native of San Francisco. He had played his high school football on USF’s home field, Kezar Stadium.
USF went 2-7 in 1948, its first under Kuharich. They quickly rebounded with 7-3 and 7-4 records the next two years. Along the way, Kuharich was adding pieces to what he hoped would be a champion. He added Dick Stanfel, Mike Mergen, Red Stephens, Ed Brown, Joe Scudaro, Ollie Matson and Burl Toler. Matson and Toler had teamed up to win the Junior College National Championship at City College of San Francisco in 1948. The pieces were in place for a championship run.
As an independent, USF was forced to play an odd schedule. The Dons began the 1951 campaign by demolishing San Jose State (39-2), Idaho (28-7), Camp Pendleton (26-0) and again San Jose State (42-7). They then traveled to New York where they survived a shootout with Fordham, winning 32-26. The rest of the season was a breeze, defeating both San Diego Navy and Santa Clara 26-7 at home before destroying Pacific (47-14) and Loyola (20-2) on the road. At the end of the season, the Dons were ranked 14th in the nation. Throughout the season, athletic news director Pete Rozelle spent his time trying to convince the various bowl committees that San Francisco was worthy of an invitation to one of eight bowl games.
As they looked to a possible bowl game, the dark cloud of racism roamed above USF. Following their victory against Loyola (in the Rose Bowl Stadium) they were invited to the Orange Bowl in Miami, Florida but were asked to leave their two African-American players home. This frustrated many of the players, because these were their brothers.
It didn’t matter that Ollie Matson led the nation with 1,566 rushing yards and 21 touchdowns, he was a human being who deserved respect. It didn’t matter that Burl Toler was the best player on their defense as a linebacker, they didn’t want to leave their teammate behind due to racism from the Orange Bowl. This was an era before the Civil Rights Movement and despite this being the likely only time San Francisco would ever be invited to a bowl game of such prestige, the team saw the decision as an easy one to make and decided to decline the invitation.
The 1951 season would be the last time USF had a football team for more than three decades. Due to budgetary concerns, the team was disbanded two days after the final game of the season and the remaining players were forced to play for other schools or to give up football entirely. If they had accepted the Orange Bowl invitation, the team could have survived. The team put the human value of their teammates above the prestige of playing in a major bowl game and the survival of the program. Several members of the team went on to illustrious careers in the NFL and each left a major impact on professional football. Ollie Matson, Gino Marchetti and Bob St. Clair would each go on to earn a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Burl Toler became the NFL’s first African American referee in 1965 and remained a referee in the NFL until 1989. With just 33 players on the roster, eight members of the 1951 team played in the NFL and Pete Rozelle, their athletic news director, became the NFL’s commissioner in 1960.
The University of San Francisco Dons football team never came close to winning a national championship but in one memorable year, they left an indelible mark on the history of college football.