I was motivated to do a bit of research on the 1951 San Francisco Don’s football team after seeing a piece on CBS prior to the Super Bowl. It was as good as the game was bad so I decided to share.
After 40 years of football mediocracy, the 1951 San Francisco Dons finished their season 9-0. The team would produce four NFL hall of famers, Gino Marchetti, Bob St. Clair, Ollie Matson and their sports information director Pete Rozelle who would spend thirty years as the Commissioner of the NFL despite never actually playing it. The Dons were considered for bowl bids to the Sugar, Orange and Gator Bowls and offered by the Orange but only if they left their African-American players Matson and Bob Toler at home. This of course was due to the prevailing attitude of segregation that existed in the South during those days. Despite being in severe financial straits and needing the bowl money badly, the team refused to participate without their team mates. Because of their financial situation it would be USF’s last year as a Division I program. They would eventually discontinue football totally in 1982 after participating as a Division II school.
Matson would go on to win a bronze medal in the 400 meters during the 1952 Olympics and have a very successful NFL career as a running back. He would be selected to the Pro Bowl six times and was named an All-Pro five times. Ollie Matson would be named to the NFL All Decade team for the 1950s before being selected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1972.
Toler, an offensive lineman, could have join Matson in the NFL had he not injured a knee. He would instead give up playing football totally and complete his degree in science and become the first African-American game official in the NFL.
The 2008 Fiesta Bowl honored the Dons and they were a subject of the documentary “’51 DONS.”