One of the last additions to the Redskins’ training camp roster, No. 86 in your program, was Burl Toler, a lanky receiver rescued from the wreckage of NFL Europa. If the name sounds vaguely familiar to older fans, here’s why: His grandfather, Burl Toler I, holds a prominent place in league history as the first black to serve as a game official — the first black to officiate in any major pro sport, in fact.
You could look it up. In 1965 — 19 years after Kenny Washington integrated the modern NFL and 13 years before Grambling quarterback Doug Williams was drafted in the first round by the Buccaneers — Burl I was hired by the league as a head linesman.
Actually, there’s an interesting story behind that. Grampa Burl was a ferocious linebacker at the University of San Francisco in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s and was drafted by the Cleveland Browns. In his senior year, 1951, the Dons were a powerhouse, finishing undefeated and featuring three Pro Football Hall of Famers — Ollie Matson, Gino Marchetti and Bob St. Clair.
The sports information director (and later assistant athletic director) at USF back then was a young go-getter named Pete Rozelle. And who should happen to be the NFL commissioner in ‘65 when Toler joined the officiating ranks? You guessed it.
“My grandfather is so modest, he never talks about that stuff,” Burl III says. “The lessons I’ve learned from him have been more life lessons than football lessons. Like always give it your all. That’s where my motivation comes from — the motivation to keep going, to find a way to make this team.”
Grampa Burl wanted to play pro football, too, but he was unlucky. During the ‘52 preseason, he hurt his knee in the College All-Star Game — an exhibition pitting the previous year’s top college seniors against the defending NFL champs — and the doctors couldn’t fix him. So he turned to education, eventually becoming the principal of a middle school in the Bay Area. In his off hours, though, he started officiating, and one day pro football came knocking.
“His dreams of making it to the NFL were shattered,” the grandson says, “but he found another way into the league as an official.”
For a quarter of a century, Burl I kept the peace on pro football’s playing fields. Then he spent several more years as a press box observer for the league, evaluating other officials. And now his grandkid, with similar persistence, is trying to make a place for himself in the game — even though the odds are long for undrafted free agents.
But then, Burl III has been through it all before. In high school, he didn’t receive a single major college scholarship offer, so he walked on at California. (As his father, Burl II, did a generation earlier.) He had 48 catches for 609 yards and three touchdowns his junior season. After taking a break from football — and teaching first graders in an after-school program in Berkeley — he made the Oakland Raiders’ practice squad last season, albeit briefly.
He was going to play in the Arena League this year when he got a call from NFL Europa. His performance for the Cologne Centurions — 28 catches, 394 yards (ninth in the league), one touchdown — was impressive enough to earn him a shot with the Redskins. But as always, wideout is one of the most crowded positions in camp.
Not that there aren’t surprises from time to time. Redskins VP Vinny Cerrato remembers being with the 49ers the year they drafted Terrell Owens. For the first few weeks, he says, Owens dropped everything thrown his way. He was such a klutz that “[Coach] George Seifert said, ‘It looks like he’s going to have to be on the practice squad.’
“But then we played our first preseason game, and T.O. caught six passes. Afterward, George says, ‘I think he’s a gamer.’ That’s how it is sometimes. You can’t always tell who your gamers are just from watching drills.”
Burl III knows what he has to do. Not only does he have to intrigue the coaches as a receiver, he also has to show he can contribute on special teams — as a gunner on punt returns, maybe, or even as a returner himself. Whatever it takes.
“No one ever told me, ‘You’ve got to play football, just like Grampa,’ ” he says. “It’s just something I’ve wanted to do, something I was always passionate about. High school, college, Arena ball, Europe, NFL — it’s all just a journey. But I feel like I’m carrying on the name of Burl Toler. And I’m proud of that.”