H IS STORY isn't lost, not completely. But with each race-related sports movie, the tale of the 1951 University of San Francisco football team has been layered over, like one of those Old Masters' paintings, discovered years later under a bad amateur landscape.
While this tale has remained a mystery, others have been told. Like "Remember the Titans," recognizing the unity achieved by an African-American football coach named Herman Boone at a newly integrated Virginia high school in 1971. And "The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings," which focused on an entertaining team of ex-Negro League baseball players during the era of racial segregation in the 1930s. And "Glory Road," based on the true story of the first all-black starting lineup basketball team that burst into the limelight in the 1966 NCAA tournament. These films, and others, have significantly raised the profile of heretofore unknown injustices.
Bob Weibel has never minded being overlooked. The story, the one about an undefeated nationally ranked team denied a bowl bid because of its racial mix, was always about camaraderie and brotherhood as much as it was a stand against racism.
Which is why, when the 79-year-old South Jersey resident learned via a FedEx package three weeks ago that he and his teammates would be honored at this year's Tostitos Fiesta Bowl on Jan. 2, "I couldn't sleep for three or four nights."
"We were a family," said Weibel, a starting defensive end on that 9-0 team. "We were all so close; there were no color barriers. There really wasn't. We lived together, played together, joked around together. When stuff happened to those two guys, we all felt it."
The two guys, Ollie Matson and Burl Toler, were so good that Weibel quipped, "We could have sent them down to the Orange Bowl alone and they might have beat the other guys." While it's an understandable exaggeration, time has disproved the only other explanation given for the USF Dons to be left out of the bowl mix that season - that their record was a result of a soft schedule, and not talent.
Coached by Joe Kuharich, who would later become the Eagles' head coach, USF went to New York and beat Fordham, then a top team. It also beat College of the Pacific, which was invited to a bowl. Cal, having escaped with a last-minute victory the year before, deleted the Dons from their schedule. Stanford, which had handled them easily early in the 1950 season, also avoided them.
Back then, it wasn't unprecedented that small schools with good teams played in big bowls. Santa Clara, which lost to USF, had been invited to the Orange Bowl two years earlier. The Dons were ranked in the top 20 in both wire polls, finishing that season 13th - despite the snub.
And then there is this: Nine players from that team reached the NFL, including Matson, a future Hall of Famer who led the nation in rushing yardage and touchdowns in 1951, and was once traded for nine players. Five reached the Pro Bowl at some point and Matson, Bob St. Clair and Gino Marchetti own the distinction of being the only three college teammates in the NFL's Hall of Fame. And the numbers might have been higher had injuries and the Korean War not interceded.
But the Dons had Matson and Toler, two African-American players at a time of white-only bathrooms and white-only hotels - and all-white colleges and all-white teams. "Our first inkling of it came a year before when we went to play in Tulsa," Weibel said. "They wouldn't let Burl and Ollie stay in the team hotel because it was white-only. They had to go across town and stay at the other one."
Weibel, of Haddon Heights, had seen this before in high school, when his powerhouse Allentown, Pa., team was invited to play against a strong Texas team - as long as it left its black players home. "We had a locker-room meeting and unanimously decided not to go," he said.
Outraged over this latest snub, Weibel and his roommate George Carley went with Matson and Toler to the crosstown hotel. "We didn't want them to be alone," said Weibel. "They were our friends, our teammates. We were all so PO'd."
More would have followed, but the rooms had been paid for, and it would have cost the team money it did not have. The bowl snub wasn't only a matter of racism and hurt pride. Without the $50,000 payday it would have provided, the USF program shut down a year later and never competed on the large scale again.
There is no football program there today.
It is still unclear whether the Dons received a bid conditional on omitting their two black members, or whether their exclusion was done behind the scenes. Ira Blue, a San Francisco sportscaster, reported that Gator Bowl President Sam Wolfson had said his bowl, and the Sugar and Orange bowls, had made a pact to avoid teams with "Negro" players. As talented as he was, or would become, Pete Rozelle - the team's sports information director - could not overcome that.
After becoming the NFL's commissioner, Rozelle installed Toler as the league's first African-American official. Drafted by the Cleveland Browns, Toler would have been the 10th player from that team to reach the NFL if not for a knee injury during a postseason all-star game.
Now 80, he is expected to be in Glendale, Ariz., for the halftime ceremony on Jan. 2. Tostitos is paying the tab for everything - flights for players and their spouses, rooms at a four-star hotel, spa, banquets and parties - even a round of golf on New Year's Day for those able. A five-minute video tribute, narrated by Morgan Freeman, will air on Fox as well.
The cruel twist, of course, is that the two players who made them such a story on and off the field in 1951 will need a lot of help from their teammates during this long-overdue celebration. Matson suffers from Alzheimer's. Toler's health has declined recently.
Weibel, who goes to the gym three times a week and still plays golf, is hoping that as many as 20 players will be there.
"I've been on the phone with a few of them," he said. "It's going to feel a lot like a family reunion."
Because in the end, that's what it really is. From the start, this was a story of brotherhood more than it was about a missed bowl game, about a team content to store its story in a shared heart all these years. *