Dec. 15, 2011
The 1951 University of San Francisco football team was, is and always will be one-of-a-kind.
They don't play football there anymore, haven't for a while. But 60 years ago, the USF Dons became a football team for the ages.
Five years ago, the team celebrated its 55th anniversary with an appearance at San Francisco's bowl game between UCLA and Florida State. Come December 31st several members of that legendary squad will be re-honored at the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl with an introduction at halftime. The second Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl is set for a 12:30 p.m. kickoff.
The 1951 Dons won every game on their schedule, all nine, and expected to receive an invitation to the Orange Bowl. After a joyous train ride back from the final regular season game in Los Angeles, the Dons' happiness was short-circuited with the news that the Orange Bowl had selected two other teams, neither of whom had gone undefeated. Not only that, no bowl selected the Dons.
The prevailing opinion of the day was that the Dons' soft schedule did them in. Closer to reality was the undeniable fact that two of USF's star players, Ollie Matson and Burl Toler, were African-American.
"Unbeaten, untied and uninvited," screamed a '51 newspaper headline. The phrase, then, now and forever, describes this legendary group of players.
One of the team's legends is Bob St. Clair, the mammoth tackle who went on to an all-pro career with the 49ers and who is one of three '51 Dons enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The others are Matson, the supremely-talented running back who was once traded from the Chicago Cardinals to the Los Angeles Rams in exchange for 11 players; and defensive end Gino Marchetti, who played on the Baltimore Colts' 1958 & 1959 NFL Championship teams. No other college team has three men off the same squad in Canton.
"We had a Bay Area pride," St. Clair said, "because so many of our guys came from and later stayed, in the area."
Backup quarterback Bill Henneberry is another player who kept the Bay Area near and dear. "We've always had a unique closeness," he says. "I think what our team did and what our players have gone on to do in life indicates that we probably were as modestly good as we thought we were."