Before Al Jury and Bob Beeks were assigned to five Super Bowls. Before Johnny Grier was promoted to referee. Before Mike Carey headed a Super Bowl crew. Before all of them, one man blazed a trail for them.
In 1965, the NFL hired Burl Toler into the NFL as a head linesman, the first black official in any of the North American professional sports leagues. In 1966 the American League hired Emmett Ashford to break the umpiring color barrier and in 1968 the NBA hired Kenneth Hudson to officiate pro basketball. And finally, the National League hired Art Williams as an umpire in 1972.
“The name Burl Toler belongs with the true legends of not just officiating, but the entire sport,” said Dean Blandino, vice president of officiating for the NFL. “He paved the way for so many officials of diverse backgrounds to realize their dream of officiating in the NFL.”
“He was such a well-respected man, not just as a superb athlete and an extraordinary official,” recalled former NFL referee and current CBS rules analyst Mike Carey. “The quality of his character was second-to-none.”
Toler wore number 37 for most of his 25-year NFL career. He was predominantly a head linesman, but also spent time as a field judge.
“Burl could always handle racial issues,” said Jim Tunney, an NFL official from 1960-1990, and Toler’s referee for 11 years. “He never got upset that coaches were yelling at a black man. He never mentioned any racial problems on the field, and if it ever did occur, he just rose above it.”
Before his officiating career, Toler made his mark in the athletic world. A standout athlete in high school, Toler attended the University of San Francisco. In 1951 the Dons were a perfect 9-0 but were denied a bowl game because they would not leave two black players behind — Toler and future NFL Hall of Famer Ollie Matson. In a university-produced video, teammate Bill Henneberry described the team’s reaction to the suggestion they exclude Toler and Matson: “Revulsion. It was automatic. There was no discussion. Unanimous, no, no way.” Although the decision was made without hesitation, it was a tremendous sacrifice for the team to make. The program lost out on a financial windfall from a bowl bid, which easily could have saved the football program; it was folded after that perfect season due to budget considerations.
That 1951 University of San Francisco football team is known as “Undefeated, Untied and Uninvited.”
Toler was drafted by the Cleveland Browns, but he seriously injured his knee in a college all-star game, ending his chances for a pro career. He became a teacher and eventually worked his way up to school principal.
“I had planned to play professional football, and I was also always interested in education and students,” he said in a 1968 interview. “The knee injury led me into education sooner.”
He also took up officiating to stay near sports. He worked his way up through the college ranks and made it to the NFL.
In the NFL, he was noted for his speed as a head linesman. Up until 1978 the NFL had six-man officiating crews and the head linesman was responsible for his sideline from goal line to goal line — all 100 yards. He had no help, which meant the head linesman not only had to make his calls with conviction, but also he had to run like mad to keep up with world-class athletes.
Despite being part of two trailblazing moments in sports, Toler was never one to rest on those accomplishments. “Completely humble,” Carey said. “He never wore any pride on his sleeve, nor had any animosity in his heart for anybody.”
When he started in the NFL, Toler worked with referee Norm Schachter for his first years. Unfortunately, he made an error early in his career that tested him, but did not define him. In 1968, Schachter’s crew, with Toler as a member, was suspended for the final game of the season plus any playoff games for not replaying a down after a holding penalty enforcement. Toler was responsible for the down box and chains, but commissioner Pete Rozelle — who was the sports information director for USF in their perfect 1951 season — felt that each crew member was (rightly) responsible to keep track of the downs. All the suspended officials were back in the NFL the next year and many went on to extraordinary accomplishments.
“We have a saying in officiating,” Carey said. “In order to be good at it, you have to have extreme confidence. But, at the same time, you have an unparalleled humility about yourself, so that you have the ability to look inside and see the mistakes and be able to improve on those things and not take your success for granted. [Burl] really was the model of that.”
Starting in 1970, Toler worked for 11 years on Tunney’s crew. He also spent time on crews with referees Gene Barth, Bob Frederic and Red Cashion. Tunney knew Toler before the two officiated in the NFL and the two enjoyed their time together on and off the field. “Every Saturday and Sunday I was with Burl and the other officials. We became a family,” Tunney said.
As a player and a pro prospect, Toler brought an eye for the game. “He was very, very knowledgeable about the game,” Tunney explained. “He knew about blocking and tackling. He knew about the emotions the players go through playing the game, which is very important.”
Tunney recalls a particularly difficult game for Toler to work — not because of the calls on the field or, for that matter, anything that occurred at the stadium. In 1978, Toler had left the education field and worked as a commissioner of the San Francisco Police Department. He knew the mayor, George Moscone. Toler was scheduled to work a Monday night game at Candlestick Park the day Moscone and city supervisor Harvey Milk were assassinated at city hall, about six miles away. “It hit Burl really hard. He knew the mayor,” Tunney recalled. “I told him that if it was too difficult for him to work, that he could not take the field, we would be okay and work with six men. But Burl said, ‘I’m okay, I’m okay.'”
Tunney remembers a humorous moment involving John Madden when he was coach of the Raiders. “Madden came into the officials’ locker room. That was the only place in the whole stadium where he wasn’t allowed, yet here he was. I told him he had to leave but Madden said, ‘Oh, I just wanted to say hi to Burl.’ John really liked Burl. Now, in reality he wanted to come in, size the crew up and make himself known to the officials before the game. So, I said, ‘John, you have to leave.’ John left right after that. Burl laughed about the whole thing.”
Toler worked many memorable games, including the 1985 NFC Championship Game and the 1981 AFC Championship Game — the Freezer Bowl, played in −59° wind chill. The California resident was able to stay in the state for his only Super Bowl assignment — Super Bowl XIV played before a record crowd at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena.
Toler retired from being an on-field official in 1989, and then served as a NFL officiating observer for eight years. Carey joined the league that year. He said that Toler was, “of course, happy to see another man of color enter the league,” but his advice to Carey was not about being black official in the NFL, but being an official in the NFL.
“It had to do with how to survive in the league and to flourish. We did not talk about the ethnic barriers, though. … Officiating is a year-to-year deal. Although, rarely do they let someone go in the first three years, that first step is monumental — doing the right things, being the right person, not being afraid of big calls, and being able to exemplify everything that comes with being an official. All officials band together to help officials come in [to the league], but he was extraordinary about that.”
Toler was recognized for his accomplishments in athletics in 2008, when he was inducted into the Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame. A charter school now occupies the school Toler taught at, and it renamed their campus in his name.
He passed away in 2009 at the age of 81, after being widowed since 1991. Toler left behind six children, eight grand-children, and hundreds of teammates — from his playing and officiating days. Troy Vincent, NFL executive vice president of football operations, said, “He was and continues to be an inspiration of how the sport of football galvanizes people of all races and backgrounds for the greater good of society.”
It took too long, and someone had to be the first NFL official to break the color barrier. Burl Toler did it 50 years ago this season and before the golden anniversary Super Bowl — fittingly in the San Francisco Bay Area — it is good for us to also recognize this very important golden anniversary.
We salute Burl Toler and all of the other brave trailblazers in sports officiating.
Ben Austro contributed to this report. Images courtesy of NFL, University of San Francisco.