The last weekend we remembered the Jackie Robinson’s Day, the first African American to play in Major League Baseball in the modern era (here his full story). Connected with his fiction, there is a less known battle for the black civil rights run by the sportswriter Lester “Red” Rodney: he fighted against baseball’s color line when almost every other journalist pretended it didn’t exist, even if he was almost erased from the books because the newspaper he worked at during the battles years was the Daily Worker, the party press of the U.S. Communist Party.
Today, still taking account to race equality’s fights, we want to talk about the story of the 1951 San Francisco Dons Football Team which, in spite of having one of the best seasons in American college football history, gave up playing the Bowl Game that year.
The Dons, under the guidance of the head coach Joe Kuharich, dominated in 1951, finishing 9-0 thanks to the players Gino Marchetti, Bob St. Clair and Ollie Matson. The squad featured eight NFL players, including Pro Football Hall of Fame members in Matson, Gino Marchetti and Bob St. Clair. Five of the eight players earned Pro Bowl selections at some point in their careers.
The school ended up getting in a difficult situation because of the presence in its own team of the African American players Ollie Matson and Burl Tolerto accept their first-ever bowl bid. In fact, on one side most bowls games refused to invite the Dons and only the Orange Bowl said it would invite the team but under one condition: giving up their African American players.
However, the team decided to not play any bowl games and to give priority to the integrity of its own squad, standing against racism in a unique way despite the serious consequences: indeed, unfortunately this memorable decision caused the cash-strapped of the football program of the university, which would have need the profit come from the bowl event to continue its adventure in the football league.
This sacrifice has been remembered as the first step to establish level of tolerance that ultimately allow the black athletes inclusion in bowl games. For this reason, the team has been included into the USF Hall of Fame in 2009.
There are several works which try to tell the efforts dealt with this dramatic case: known as the “Undefeated, Untied and Uninvited”, this book, written by Kristine Setting Clark and published in 2002, tells the whole story of the 1951 University of San Francisco football team as a a remarkable sports lesson which transcends football “into the realm of the human spirit”. Then again, “’51 Dons” is the 2014 documentary film which describe the whole season which has seen this incredibile gesture, also refering to the university’s athletic director case, Pete Rozelle, who went on to become the commissioner of the NFL, reshaping all the American football.