by Lowell Cohn The Press Democrat | December 30, 2015, 11:33PM
Some sports stories are the nicest stories.
This one is about the University of San Francisco Dons of 1951, their undefeated, untied football team, the team that eventually produced three NFL Hall of Famers — Bob St. Clair, Gino Marchetti and Ollie Matson. That team.
Maybe you know the story. How the Dons, coached by Joe Kuharich, were the best team in the nation. How they wanted to play in a postseason bowl game. How they didn’t play in a bowl game because two of their players, Matson and Burl Toler, were black. No bowl wanted the Dons.
Turns out Bay Area resident Gary Nelson, director of golf at USF and its former interim athletic director, is producing a film about that team, “The ’51 Dons.” It’s a labor of love. Nelson knew the players, got many of them to tell their stories. Only seven of the 1951 Dons are still alive, including Santa Rosa businessman Dick Colombini. Colombini played offense and defense, was the starting guard and tackle. Most of the Dons played both ways.
Another group also is developing a film about the 1951 Dons. This topic is hot and this topic is current.
When Nelson decided the Dons story needed telling, he lacked one thing. Funding. “I’m a dentist,” Nelson told me over the phone. “I had no clue. I’m sitting there thinking, ‘I’m in way over my head.’ ”
He got a phone call. Rich guy. Heard Nelson’s wife talking about the film at the golf course. Guy said film needed to be made. “I’m sending you 100,000 bucks,” guy said.
“Huh?” Nelson said.
Two days later, call from another rich guy. “You don’t know me,” guy said. “That story has to be told. I’m sending you $100,000.”
“Huh?” Nelson said.
Just like that he had 200 grand. He needed a quarter of a million for startup dough. The other $50,000 rolled right on in. He got the funding without asking anyone.
A miracle? You make the call.
Nelson has a script, commitments from actors, is in the process of getting a director.
Here’s what went down. The Orange Bowl was interested in the Dons team. Made one stipulation. The Dons could come minus Matson and Toler — the two African-Americans.
Nelson recalled a scene from the script, a team meeting when St. Clair got up to speak. To yell, actually. St. Clair, who later lived in Sonoma County and died this year in Santa Rosa, narrated the scene to Nelson. “What the hell are they talking about,” St. Clair shouted. “We’re a team. Everybody goes or nobody goes.”
Nobody went. The team voted unanimously against the Orange Bowl. Best team in the nation did not play in a bowl game.
Once, a producer came to Nelson, wanted to make the film. The producer, a man Nelson calls a prototypical L.A. mover, saw the film centering on Matson and Toler. And, in fact, ESPN recently made a documentary about them for Black History Month. Nelson helped them with their film. But he sees the story differently, did not go along with the L.A. mover.
Of course, the story is about the injustice done to Matson and Toler. But it’s also about the justice done to them by their teammates. Good stories have multiple meanings. Ask Shakespeare. This is how Nelson is telling the story:
“1951, how many years was that in front of Selma? There had never been a black play in any Southern bowl. That was normal thinking in those days. To have this group of young men come up with that stand at that time is absolutely amazing. Oddly enough, Burl and Ollie were quiet on the subject. They pretty much did not say anything about it during the vote or even the days after.
“I had spent some time with the players. Ollie and Burl never mentioned once in all the intervening years about the injustice that was done. They only mentioned that, back in 1951, 35 white guys stood up for them.”
Now comes the sad part. The bad thing that happened from doing the good thing. USF closed down its football program after that mythological season. No money.
“This part of it has to be told and I’m not being a USF apologist,” Nelson said. “The Jesuits are a lot about money. They would have made enough by saying to the team, ‘We’re going to the Orange Bowl.’ They would have made enough to support that football team for the next four years. And they were the ones who were invited. The kids weren’t invited. The university was. The university stood by the team’s decision and gave up the opportunity of that purse and the chance to play in a national championship as well.”
Nelson reminded me Pete Rozelle, future commissioner of the NFL, was the publicist for that team. Reminded me how the players would march the half mile from campus along with the band through Golden Gate Park to Kezar Stadium where USF played football — so did the 49ers.
Reminded me Matson became the best running back in the NFL and won a bronze in the 400 meters and a silver in the 4×400-meter relay in the 1952 Olympics. Reminded me Toler became the first black referee in the NFL and the principal of a San Francisco middle school which bears his name.
Reminded me about Marchetti: “Gino participated in the Battle of the Bulge. He came back from the war and was working in the family bar in Martinez and was approached by one of the coaches at USF. He told me, ‘In those days, I was just into riding bikes. My cigarettes were rolled up in my T-shirt sleeve and I had a leather jacket with 16 zippers.’ He said your mark was how many zippers you could get on your leather jacket. He rolled into USF for the first time on his Harley.
“Then there was Bob St. Clair. He went to Polytechnic High School in San Francisco. He was already married. It was a good reason for him to want to stay local. Ollie was out of City College in San Francisco as was Burl. Burl had only played football two years while at City College.”
Call that the partial cast of characters. Understand this is an old story that never gets old, the story of how little USF, for all the right reasons, showed up the Orange Bowl. These are the nicest stories.
For more on the world of sports in general and the Bay Area in particular, go to the Cohn Zohn at cohn.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. You can reach Staff Columnist Lowell Cohn at email@example.com.