Inspired by Grandfather, Toler Battles to Win Job

By Mark Viera
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Burl Toler III used to sit on his grandfather's lap and listen to the old man tell stories. He could sit there and listen, chewing bubble gum and slurping 7-Up, for what seemed like hours.

He received those life lessons in his grandfather's garage. He saw perseverance in family photos. He learned dedication at the dinner table. He has used his family's past to motivate his present.

Toler, 25, is again battling for a roster spot at wide receiver with the Washington Redskins, who signed and released him three times last season. Because of injuries to Malcolm Kelly and Devin Thomas, Toler figures to get increased playing time in the Hall of Fame Game against the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday in Canton, Ohio. It will also be an opportunity to change the opinion of scouts who so far have dismissed his NFL readiness.

The will to fight against long odds is among the lessons learned from his grandfather, Burl Toler, 80, who overcame racism and history to become the NFL's first African American game official.

"He's done a lot in his life," Toler said of his grandfather, "and I think even before I knew he was an official or knew he played football or anything, he was just a positive figure in my life regarding everything."

So training camp is just another challenge for Toler. It's no different from his mother saying no football unless he earned straight As. Just 11 at the time, he brought home one B-plus on his next report card, and she bent enough to let him join the Pop Warner league. It's no different from his first day at the University of California, where coaches initially promised him nothing as a walk-on. He worked into the starting lineup as a freshman.

As he sweats through summer workouts, Toler has kept his grandfather in mind. He asks himself: Are you tired? Too hot? Can you keep going? He knows this is nothing compared with his grandfather's journey.

"I feel the reason I play like that is because of my family and thinking about my grandfather and dad being out on the similar field I'm playing on," Toler said. "I feel lucky to be in this position, to have people living through me."

His grandfather grew up in Memphis, where he served as water boy for his high school football team. He enrolled at City College of San Francisco, started playing football and after one year earned a scholarship to the University of San Francisco. In 1951, Toler became an all-American linebacker for a Dons team that flattened opponents from Idaho to Santa Clara, Calif.

"He was tall and rangy, and he didn't mind hitting anybody," said longtime friend Hiawatha Harris, "and if you come through the line with the ball, you were going to get hit by Burl Toler."

No bowl selected the team, despite its 9-0 record. USF had two black players, Toler and Ollie Matson, so Southern bowl committees declined to invite it unless those black players did not make the trip. That sentiment prevailed outside the Dons' locker room. Opposing players uttered racial slurs. Some spat on Toler. On a road trip to Tulsa, Toler had to sleep in a different hotel from white players.

So the USF players faced a choice: leave behind the two black players and go to a bowl game, or stay unified and skip the bowl appearance. The team stuck together.

"Not a second thought," said Bill Henneberry, a backup quarterback on the team. "As corny as this may sound, it was a family. Time has demonstrated that's pretty close to being a fact."

USF's final regular season win became Toler's last complete football game, even though he was supposed to join the Cleveland Browns in 1952. He tore knee ligaments during a collegiate all-star game and spent a month in the hospital. That didn't deter pro teams such as the Chicago Cardinals, who twice offered Toler $10,000, no-cut contracts. He turned down their bids because he had little hope for a healthy NFL career.

Toler instead used his master's degree in education to become a teacher at San Francisco's Benjamin Franklin Middle School -- a school renamed Burl Toler Campus in 2006 -- and before long, he became the city's first African American middle school principal.

Toler stayed connected to football by officiating local high school and college games. When Pete Rozelle -- the same man who worked as USF communications director -- became NFL commissioner, he asked if Toler had interest in officiating at the pro level.

On Sept. 19, 1965, Toler served as the NFL's first African American field judge, in the District no less, as the Redskins lost to Cleveland, 17-7. Toler, whose family said he was unavailable to comment, would sometimes walk onto the field between the other officials so they could shield him from objects and insults hurled his direction.

"He was never one to come home and complain about what people would say," said Burl Toler Jr., father of the Redskins' wide receiver. "But I know he kind of -- without boasting about it or expressing it -- there were some issues with fans. Number one, they don't like referees. Being a black referee was a double whammy."

Toler worked Super Bowl XIV and retired in 1990, but his legacy has continued. His son carved his path against strong odds, walking on the Cal football team and eventually becoming a three-year starter at linebacker. Now his grandson is hoping to make a name of his own.

Just a few years ago, grandfather, father and the rest of the family used to sit underneath the north end zone scoreboard at Memorial Stadium and watch Toler in Cal blue and gold. He stood 6 feet 2 and ran fast (4.5 in the 40-yard dash), but Cal had 13 wide receivers, and coaches weren't sure Toler would fit. By November of his first year, he was a starter. By his senior season in 2004, he led the Golden Bears in receiving.

He again fed off family influence after going undrafted out of college. Toler became a teacher in the Bay Area, just like his grandfather. He taught first-graders in reading, math and music and led a T-shirt-making enrichment program. He forged pen pal relationships that remain intact.

He spent some time with the Oakland Raiders in 2006 and earned a chance in Washington last season but struggled for a roster spot. He played the season in Cologne, Germany, for the Centurions of NFL Europa. The Redskins re-signed him in January, and he has come back for another training camp.

"We gave him a shot because he's deserving of a shot," wide receivers coach Stan Hixon said. "He's a pretty good football player."

Toler has improved his route running and release coming off the ball during the offseason, although he still might be a long shot to make the team.

He continued, however, to fight during two-a-days, remembering his grandfather's battles. How could he forget? He shares the name on the back of his jersey. He hears about it sometimes from officials on the field, who asked if he's related to that Burl Toler. He grew up listening to life lessons from that Burl Toler.

What he learned then has driven him to Washington and through training camp -- regardless of whether he is on the roster at summer's end.

"I have nothing to complain about, ever," Toler said. "I think about my grandfather playing in 1951, the training rooms, the equipment, all that stuff alone. Then you think about the time, and it being a racial issue. Then you think about what he overcame to be there. . . . I can't say: 'Oh, no, my feet hurt, or I didn't do this. How come I didn't get a scholarship? How come I didn't get drafted?' He's ingrained this mentality through showing me, just leading by example. I feel like I'm in the best situation ever, and I can't deny that."

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