MAY 9, 1928
Burl Toler was born in Memphis. The first Black official in any major sport in the U.S., he defeated prejudice at each turn.
In 1951, Toler starred for the legendary undefeated University of San Francisco Dons. Prejudice kept the integrated team from playing in the Gator Bowl, but the team found success anyway. Nine players went to the NFL, three of them later inducted into the Professional Football Hall of Fame. Their best player may have been Toler, who was drafted by Cleveland but suffered a severe knee injury in a college all-star game that ended his playing days.
Toler decided to make his way into professional football through officiating. The NFL hired him in 1965 — a year before Emmett Ashford became the first Black umpire in Major League Baseball and three years before Jackie White broke the color barrier in the NBA.
He rose above the racism he encountered, working as a head linesman and field judge for a quarter-century. He officiated Super Bowl XIV, where the Pittsburgh Steelers defeated the Los Angeles Rams in 1980. Two years later, he officiated the “Freezer Bowl,” where the Cincinnati Bengals defeated the San Diego Chargers in the AFC Championship Game. The game marked the coldest temperatures of any game in NFL history — minus 59 degrees wind chill — and Toler suffered frostbite.
In addition to his NFL work, he worked as an educator, becoming the first Black secondary school principal in the San Francisco district. He died in 2009. Two area schools and a hall on the University of San Francisco campus have been renamed in his honor. On Nov. 23, 2020, Toler was remembered again when the NFL had its first all-Black officiating crew.