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Inspired by Grandfather, Toler Battles to Win Job

The Redskins dive into preparations for the upcoming season.
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 29, 2008; Page E01

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.

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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.

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