My Ballgame With Burl: Departed Former NFL Official and S.F. Police Commissioner Was Very Generous With This Cub Reporter

Categories: Local News, Sports
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Burl Toler's plaque at the Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame
It's never easy to write an obituary. If someone outlives their contemporaries, it's often hard to fill in the details of a life beyond inane observances such as "she really was a good hostess" or "He really loved to play canasta."

Burl Toler presented a radically different challenge. He was a man who accomplished so much in life, that his obituary could begin to read like a C.V. (thankfully, local and national obits were riveting, as they should be). Toler -- whose funeral will be tomorrow at St. Ignatius Church in the city -- was truly a local legend. He was a standout football player at both City College and USF (back when the Dons still had a team, let alone "The Best Team You Never Heard Of"). A grisly knee injury suffered, heartrendingly, after he'd already been selected as the Cleveland Browns' top draft pick kept him from making the NFL gridiron -- but instead of suiting up as a player he became the league's first black official and the first black man to work a Super Bowl. Locally, he was also a city police commissioner from 1977 to 1986, a middle school administrator, and both his son and grandson played for the U.C. Berkeley football team.

It wasn't until I read Toler's obituary that I realized that I had shared an afternoon with him eons ago. I remembered the kindly face I saw staring back from the paper as the massive, elderly black man with a cane who was seated next to me 15 years ago in the Memorial Stadium press box.
 

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Toler as a star at USF
If memory serves, it may have been my first trip to a press box. Ostensibly, my charge was to dictate into a tape recorder as if I was calling radio play-by-play -- but chattering to yourself like Walter Mitty isn't exactly a social thing to do in a crowd, especially when the elderly man to my left was concentrating on the game so hard. To be honest, it was an astonishingly bad Cal team out there -- and Toler's reactions soon became more intriguing than the game on the field. 

I abandoned any thought of shouting into the tape recorder (I'd go on to call play-by-play for many years -- but not that day). Perhaps sensing my inexperience in watching football with a discerning eye, Toler noted that he was observing the officials. It wasn't a good day for them -- he expertly pointed out a missed call here, bad positioning there. It also wasn't a good day (or decade) for the Bears. Toler seemed to wince when the team missed tackles, blew assignments, or ran into its own blockers -- things his astoundingly good college squads would not have done. Again, generously, he pointed out little things I would never have seen: How a receiver's body language gave away he was going to run a post pattern, when someone quit on the play -- that sort of thing.

At that point in my life, the day had only one precedent -- when the author of my freshman-year textbook, Murray Protter (who, alas, also died recently) was the surprise sub for just one day in my Math I-A lecture and explained differential calculus so lucidly and beautifully that people gave him a spontaneous standing ovation.

Try as I might, I can't remember how I parted company with Burl Toler. I'd like to think I thanked him. I'd like to think I shook his hand.

All I know is, I remember him.

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