First African American game official in the NFL

Staff and Wire Reports

Burl Toler, the first African American game official in NFL history, has died. He was 81.

Toler died Sunday at a hospital in Castro Valley, Calif., according to the University of San Francisco. He was a star lineman and linebacker on the Dons' 1951 football team that was denied a bowl bid despite a 9-0 record because it refused to leave its two black players -- Toler and Ollie Matson -- behind.

"We were disappointed at the time, sure," Toler told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2001. "But we were not going to accept any old thing; it was not what the team, our coach [the late Joe Kuharich] or the university stood for. We were very fortunate and blessed to have had a group like that."

Toler was drafted by the Cleveland Browns but suffered a career-ending knee injury in a 1952 college all-star game against the Rams. He was hired by the NFL in 1965.

"Burl Toler was a pioneer as the first African American game official in pro sports," NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said. "He was a great athlete who then became a great official. The NFL will always be proud of his contributions to football and his unique place in NFL history."

Toler spent 25 years as a field judge and head linesman in the NFL. He was head linesman in Pittsburgh's 31-19 Super Bowl victory over the then-Los Angeles Rams in 1980.

Burl Abron Toler was born May 9, 1928, in Memphis. Before coming to USF, he was an All-American football player at City College of San Francisco. He graduated from USF with a bachelor's degree in 1952 and a master's in 1966. Toler was a longtime educator in the San Francisco school district, a director of personnel for the San Francisco community college district and a USF trustee.

Toler's son, Burl Toler Jr., and grandson, Burl Toler III, played college football at UC Berkeley. Burl Toler III has spent time on the practice squads for the Oakland Raiders and Washington Redskins.

Toler is survived by his brother, Arnold, of Memphis; six children, Valerie, Burl Jr., Susan, Gregory, Martel and Jennifer; and eight grandchildren. His wife, Melvia, died in 1991.

A funeral Mass will be held Aug. 26 in San Francisco. A scholarship in Toler's memory has been established at USF.


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