The Game They Never Played

Written by Gary McDonald and Monica Villavicencio
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The 1951 Dons is arguably one of the best college football teams of all time. They had a perfect season—nine wins, no losses, no ties—and the players were so talented, the National Football League drafted nine of them and named three to its Hall of Fame, a record for one college team.

But that perfect season didn’t have the perfect ending: There was no bowl invitation, no national championship, and no more football at USF. And yet, the 1951 team’s unwavering friendship, and integrity, created a legacy that is more powerful today than it was a half century ago.

Ollie MatsonThis is the story of the 1951 Dons and how the players’ greatest victory came from a game they never played.

On a Sunday afternoon in February, dozens of students are gathered at University Center, eager to watch the premiere of an ESPN documentary honoring USF’s 1951 football team: “51 Dons.” The film is the cornerstone of the network’s Black History Month programming, shining a national spotlight on USF.


A Rare Integrated Team

USF’s 1951 football team was ahead of its time for its African-American and white players competing side-by-side. Racially integrated teams were relatively rare in the early 50s, but USF had already been fielding one for two decades, starting in 1930.

The team was a rag-tag group of war veterans, city kids, and farm boys from across the country, but still close-knit, and they treated its two African-American players—running back Ollie Matson ’52 and linebacker Burl Toler ’52, MA ’66—like equals.

“We judged people on their own merit. If a guy was a good guy, he was a good guy,” said Bill Henneberry ’52, MA ’61. “We were very, very close.”

Toler and MatsonLineback Burl Toler ’52, MA ’66 (left) and running back Ollie Matson ’52 (right) in their cap and gowns.

They bonded by surviving the toughest thing any of them had ever endured: Camp Kuharich. Named for Dons coach Joe Kuharich, it was a brutal two-week ordeal near Sacramento in 115-degree heat. Kuharich rationed the players’ drinking water, and his practices went for hours on end, with few breaks.

“Even those who went on to great heights in professional sports said that was the toughest two weeks they ever spent in a camp,” Henneberry recalled.

Camp Kuharich worked, and the Dons were on fire from the first game of the season. After the team crushed San Jose State 39-2, the wins just kept coming.

And so did Irene. “In the fourth quarter, when we were ahead, fans would pull out their handkerchiefs and sing ‘Goodnight, Irene’ to the other team,” said Henneberry. The popular folk song soon became the Dons’ unofficial theme song.

It was a heady time to be a Don, but as the ’51 team raced toward a perfect season, racial tensions in the country were growing. That July, a huge crowd of more than 3,000 people attacked a black family in Cicero, Ill., after they moved into an all-white apartment complex.

“This was a moment right before you had a burgeoning civil rights movement,” said Candice Harrison, an assistant professor of history at USF. It would be three more years before the U.S. Supreme Court ended school segregation with its landmark decision in Brown v. the Board of Education. Toler, one of the Dons’ African-American players had experienced this segregation first-hand when he attended a black-only high school.

In 1949, USF’s football team got a dose of reality while they were hanging out in a hotel room in Oklahoma, the night before playing the University of Tulsa. It was getting late, and the black players got up to leave, because they weren’t allowed to stay in that hotel.

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“That was something we weren’t familiar with at all,” Henneberry says, calling it “a stark example of where the country was at that time.” Some of the white players accompanied the black players to their hotel, and stayed with them for the night.

Things got even uglier at the game the next day. “I got hit with everything: fists, elbows, knees,” Matson told The Saturday Evening Post in 1966. “Finished that game with two black eyes, a bloody nose, and my face puffed up like a pound cake. I scored three touchdowns, and they were all called back.”

At that time in America, segregation was still enforced, often with laws, and sometimes with violence.


The Decision

In Stockton, Calif., the ’51 team was preparing for the biggest game of the season. Forty-five-thousand fans would be watching as USF challenged the University of the Pacific, a team that had already toppled two national powers, Oregon and Clemson.

In the locker room before the game, Coach Kuharich had some exciting news: representatives from the Orange Bowl would be among those watching from the stands.

The game wasn’t even close. The Dons pounded UOP 47-14, and word got out that the Orange Bowl had shortlisted USF. The dream of playing in a bowl game seemed closer than ever.

Everything was on the line in the season’s last game, when USF played Loyola University (now Loyola Marymount) in Los Angeles. If the Dons won, they would become the first undefeated team in USF history, and it might be enough to score a spot in the Orange Bowl.

kuharichHead Coach Joe Kuharich (center) led the ’51 Dons
to an undefeated record.

The Dons trampled Loyola 20-2, and Henneberry remembers the trip back as “the greatest train ride in history.” But when the train arrived in San Francisco, there were no cheering fans. Instead, an empty platform greeted the team, and devastating news: Baylor and Georgia Tech were going to the Orange Bowl. USF was out, and the ’51 Dons had ended the season “Undefeated, Untied, and Uninvited,” as Kristine Setting Clark called it in her 2002 book of the same title.

Some blamed the snub on an easy season, noting that top teams were conspicuously absent from USF’s schedule. But the team was so strong, few agree with this challenge. “Schools had openings, but they wouldn’t schedule us,” Henneberry said. “The message was ‘Look out for the Dons. They’re loaded.’”

Ira Blue suggested a different reason. The 1950’s-era sportscaster reported on KGO radio that the Orange, Sugar, and Gator Bowls had all decided to exclude teams with “Negro players” that year. Gator Bowl president Sam Wolfson told Blue that Matson and Toler “absolutely could not play” in any bowl game in the South. Wolfson later disputed the account.

In a 2007 interview with College Sports TV (CSTV), Carl Nolte ’55 from the San Francisco Chronicle asked, “Was there overt racism in not getting a bowl bid? They didn’t want a team that had black players on it because it was a political problem for them.” The bowls were usually held in the South because of the good weather, he said, and southern teams were usually white-only. This wasn’t just the end of the season for the Dons, it was the end of an era. The best football team USF ever produced would also be its last. With no money from championship games to help offset expenses, football was just too expensive to continue.

USF cancelled its football program the following year.


2006 GraduationThe ’51 Dons received honorary degrees and a standing ovation during graduation, May 2006. ©Paul Chinn/San Francisco Chronicle/Corbis.


A Standing Ovation

On graduation day in May 2006, it was standing-room only in St. Ignatius Church on USF’s Hilltop Campus. Students could barely contain their excitement, more focused on getting their diplomas than hearing a speech by the university’s president.

But as Fr. Privett talked about a racially segregated society, and about USF’s 1951 Dons’ integrated football team, the students suddenly understood why a group of older men was sitting in the front of the church, and they began listening closely to the president’s words.

“Despite the Dons’ perfect football record in 1951, the team was not invited to any post-season bowl games, which should have been a given for a team with USF’s spectacular season,” he said. “Several teams with inferior records were invited to bowl games. The reason the USF team was not invited soon became clear: racism.”

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“The team members exemplify the values that remain at the core of USF’s identity as a Jesuit Catholic university: dedication to a common good rather than the interests of any one individual; respect for the dignity and worth of every human being; and an unwavering commitment to excellence.”

Eleven of the original 48 players were there that day, siting side-by-side in one long row. When Fr. Privett finished, he signaled for them to stand and receive an honorary doctoral degree.

As they did, the audience leapt to its feet with thunderous applause. The players seemed taken aback by the ovation. With a slight nod of their heads, they began to acknowledge those standing in their honor, at the back of the church, in the balcony, and along the far sides. Some had tears in their eyes.

Two years later, the team was honored at a halftime ceremony during the 2008 Fiesta Bowl in Glendale, Az., broadcast live on Fox TV. After 57 years, the team was finally on the field at a post-season, college championship game.


Lasting Legacy

At USF’s student center, Malina Terrell ’14, an African-American volleyball player, just finished watching the ESPN documentary. She says her current teammates have the same spirit she saw in the 1951 team. “I think those players pretty much defined what a great teammate is,” she said.

Burl Toler’s grandson, Cameron, inherited some of his grandfather’s talent, and played football as a wide receiver for UC Berkeley from 2005-2008. “In 1951 my grandfather’s team went 9-0, destroying opponents and staking their claim to a bowl bid that never came,” he told CSTV.

“The spirit of the 1951 USF Dons is alive in the racially diverse rosters of modern-day college football teams like mine. They stood together in quiet defiance of racism, so that my teammates and I didn’t have to.”

 





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