ESPN FILMS: '51 DONS (TV)

Summary

One in this series of documentary films profiling notable athletes and events in sports history. This program profiles "the greatest team you never heard of": the San Francisco Dons, the University of San Francisco football team, who had a legendary 9-0 season in 1951. One of its most notable players was running back Ollie Matson, who attended the Olympic trials thanks to Jesse Owens' sponsorship and then enrolled at USF after receiving multiple athletic scholarship offers. Though technically integrated decades before, most college football teams honored a "gentleman's agreement" in which black players were not typically given leadership positions on the team and were often not invited to participate in games in Jim Crow areas of the country, where the audiences were also segregated. USF refused to bench its black players, though the team then had trouble securing hotel rooms and buses for their trips to the South, and Matson endured unnecessary physical brutality on the playing field from opposing white players.

The Dons' other star in 1951 was co-captain Burt Toler, who displayed an immediate aptitude for football despite being unfamiliar with the game, and he and Matson became fast friends. Coach Joe Kuharich was known for the "military precision" with which he drilled his team, leading one player to declare that he preferred the hardships of WWII to Kuharich's boot camp. The team members bonded quickly under his demanding leadership, to the point where other schools' teams avoided scheduling games with them, as they were known to be "too good." They also faced financial trouble due to low attendance at games, but talented publicity "machine" Pete Rozelle made useful contacts with local newspapers and created helpful word-of-mouth about the talented team. The team began winning every game of the 1951 season, though continued facing racist backlash as they did so, and Matson was selected as an All-American after the fifth game at Fordham University. They faced – and defeated – another talented black player, Eddie Macon, at the College of the Pacific, and then won their ninth and final game at Loyola University with a score of 20-2 as their fans sang their unofficial anthem, "Goodnight, Irene." The Dons returned to San Francisco in high spirits, sure that they would be receive an invitation to the Orange Bowl, but then learned that they had been asked only on the condition that they leave Matson and Toler behind. The team immediately decided against it, though the decision and the subsequent financial losses meant the end of Division I football at USF.

Several of the men, including Bob McClair, were forced to play for other teams in order to maintain their athletic scholarships. Toler suffered a career-ending injury in the College All-Stars game, and Kuharich went on to coach the Chicago Cardinals. Rozelle became the commissioner of the NFL, memorably trading nine Los Angeles Rams players for Matson, and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1985. Matson won medals at the 1952 Olympic Games in Helsinki, and he, McClair and teammate Gino Marchetti all ended up in the NFL and in the Hall of Fame, making USF the first school to have three players so honored. In 1965 Rozelle made Toler the first professional black football referee, a job for which he employed the same "quiet dignity" that he used in his later career as a school principal. Toler and Matson remained close friends through the rest of their lives, with Matson seeming to recognize him even while suffering from dementia later in life, and college football continued its journey to full integration as the country made similar strides towards equality. Dr. Clarence Jones comments that effort is needed from all people if social change is to be made, and the surviving Dons were presented with an honorary "bowl bid" in 2008. The interviewees close the program with a round of "Goodnight, Irene." Commercials deleted.

Details

  • NETWORK: N/A
  • DATE: 8:00 PM
  • RUNNING TIME: 0:45:30
  • COLOR/B&W: Color
  • CATALOG ID: 121934
  • GENRE: Sports
  • SUBJECT HEADING: African-American Collection - Sports
  • SERIES RUN: ESPN - TV, 2014
  • COMMERCIALS:
    • TV - Commercials - American Advisors Group
    • TV - Commercials - Geico car insurance

CREDITS

  • Bob Dussault … Producer
  • Ron Luscinski … Producer, Director, Writer
  • Tom Davis … Producer, Writer
  • Danny Llewelyn … Producer, Writer
  • Peter Tobyansen … Co-Producer
  • Sonia Lisette … Associate Producer
  • Julie Arie … Associate Producer
  • Tom Hiel … Music by
  • Johnny Mathis … Narrator
  • Bob St. Clair … Interviewee
  • Clarence Jones … Interviewee
  • Ollie Matson
  • Jesse Owens
  • Joe Kuharich
  • Eddie Macon
  • Gino Marchetti
  • Pete Rozelle
  • Burl Toler
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