The Dons lost by a single point after leading for nearly the entire of the game against the Santa Clara Broncos on Saturday, Feb. 15. at War Memorial Gym. San Francisco seemed to be in control of the contest throughout the first 39 minutes of the game, but a scoring drought allowed the Broncos to catch up and steal the win from the Dons.
With the season nearing its end, every game is becoming a must-win for the Dons. They seemed well aware of that on Saturday, when they pulled through for a tough 69-63 victory over the Santa Clara Broncos at the Leavey Center. The exciting win moved the Dons to 16-10 overall and 9-5 in West Coast Conference (WCC) play. Meanwhile, Santa Clara’s loss dropped them to 11-16 (4-10 WCC).
Running back Ollie Matson had a magnificent 1951 season for the Dons, finishing first in the country in touchdowns. Matson would go on to play for 14 years in the NFL and compete as a runner in the 1952 Summer Olympics. (Photo featured in a 1951 Foghorn Issue)
USF students crowded around the three television screens on the University Center first floor on Sunday to watch “‘51 Dons”, an ESPN documentary covering the story of the 1951 USF football team that pulled off a 9-0 season and refused to play in a bowl game without its two African American players.
The screening event, which was held by Los Locos, USF’s student spirit group, was a popular place for students and other viewers to join together on a rainy afternoon. Los Locos provided food and beverages, and spectators were given shirts that read “I Stand With The ‘51 Dons” before sitting down to learn about a team that has a special place in USF history, and also had a profound impact on the movement towards racial equality in the mid-1900s.
The 1951 Dons football team was one of the most dominant of its era. Aside from finishing the season unbeaten, nine San Francisco players from the squad would go on to play in the NFL, and three would be inducted into the league’s Hall of Fame. While it is easy to list the Dons’ team and individual achievements from their illustrious season, even more impressive was the players’ choice to support their teammates and challenge racial inequality through their inaction.
After defeating Loyola University to complete their perfect year, it seemed certain that the Dons would receive an invitation to one of college football’s most decorated bowl games. Indeed, this turned out to be true, as USF was asked to compete in the Orange Bowl against Baylor. However, the request came with a catch: The Dons would be allowed to play in the Orange Bowl, but only if their pair of African American players, Ollie Matson and Burl Toler, were left behind. Upon hearing this, the band of brothers that made up the USF team immediately refused, making it clear that their close relationships with two of the team’s most talented and respected players meant much more to them than playing in the season’s defining game. Interestingly, USF’s decision was kept under wraps, and Georgia Tech was selected to play Baylor in an effort to make it look like the Dons were never chosen in the first place.
ESPN’s documentary, which was directed by Ron Luscinski, focuses on Matson and Toler, as well as star players Gino Marchetti and Ed Brown, as the Dons stormed through the 1951 season leaving all opponents in the dust. “‘51 Dons” also looks at the effect that the team’s decision has had on racial segregation in professional sports, as well as the aftermath of the 1951 season and the lasting friendships and bonds formed by the players. With a wide range of interviews, the documentary features insights from current USF staff, including President Stephen A. Privett, S.J. and Visiting Professor Clarence B. Jones. Other voices include Bob St. Clair, an offensive tackle on the 1951 team, and members of Matson and Toler’s families.
The audience at the viewing party laughed at St. Clair’s jokes, stared in awe as Matson’s incredible speed was showcased, and became emotional upon seeing pictures from the final time that Matson and Toler saw each other before they passed away. The film’s end credits were met with a resounding applause, and students left having gained valuable knowledge regarding a memorable part of the school’s history.
Junior psychology major and Los Locos member Olivia Traina learned a lot about USF’s past from the documentary.
“[Before], I definitely didn’t know the details of the whole situation, of the dynamics between the players themselves and what a tight-knit team they were, and also how big football was at USF for a while and how it had to come to an end because of an event like this,” Traina said. “But it’s really amazing how this fit into the whole scheme of the Civil Rights Movement.”
Others found themes in “‘51 Dons” that they could apply to modern-day USF and use to view the school’s current position from a new perspective.
“It’s really great to be able to look back and see something so important and so inspiring that we can all share,” Los Locos President Laticia Lonon said. “For whatever reason, we all happen to come [to USF], and it’s easy to complain about a hefty tuition or not liking certain aspects of what’s going on at school. But, at the end of it we came here for a reason, and I think it’s really inspiring that we can see where we came from and where we’re going, and how these are being paralleled.”
Many people likely heard about the 1951 San Francisco football team for the first time when they watched “‘51 Dons” on Sunday. Regardless, the often overlooked story of a squad that valued its camaraderie more than anything and elected to stand above racial discrimination has been felt throughout the sports world for the last 63 years. The 1951 football team’s refusal to play in the Orange Bowl has played no small part in decreasing the presence of racism in professional sports and also in the United States as a whole, and the team’s decision still epitomizes USF’s core values to this day.
“We are a school that shows a lot about how diverse we are and how diverse our city is,” junior communications major Brittany Silveira said. “I think the slogan ‘Change the World from Here’ – how they showed in the documentary that they did it before all the Civil Rights movements were going on – it just shows that they took a stand for what they believed in, and followed what the whole mission statement of USF is about.”
The Dons continued their three-game road trip on Saturday, Feb. 8, visiting the Brigham Young Cougars. BYU was the West Coast Conference coming into the game with a per-game average of 86.7, but USF limited the Cougars to only 68. Unfortunately, the Dons only put up 63 points themselves.
The Dons ended their 13-game losing streak against San Diego on Thursday night with a 78-74 victory over the Toreros in War Memorial Gym. USF was outrebounded by the Toreros 49-30, but managed to hang on for the win thanks to a career-high 28 points from sophomore guard Zhané Dikes.
USF has brought in a large pool of talent for the 2014 season, and these three freshmen are ready for the games to begin.
For freshman utility player Matt Sinatro, a big part of his excitement for the upcoming baseball season goes beyond receiving some playing time.
“One of the reasons I decided to come to USF besides the city was the great coach staff,” Sinatro said. “I knew it was the right fit because they care about you as a person rather than how you perform on the field. It was really warm and welcoming.”
Sinatro is no stranger to the expectations of playing college baseball. His father, Matt Sr., coached under former Major League Baseball manager Lou Piniella for 19 seasons.
The Sammamish, Wash. native accumulated a batting average of .365 during his senior year at Skyline High School, also while leading the team to two conference championships. Sinatro is ready to showcase his abilities for the Dons, and he also has kind words to say about his experiences so far.
“The foundation that’s built here is driven to make you a better person rather than how you perform on the field,” Sinatro said. “It’s really nice to be a part of that.”
Despite having a rigorous schedule of classes combined with practice, his passion for the game is palpable as he describes the sport with fondness.
“What I like most is the atmosphere that surrounds baseball,” Sinatro said. “It’s definitely a team game and it’s really cool knowing your teammates have your back. It really brings people together.”
“I’ve been around USF, its culture and its baseball team pretty much my whole life,” Giarratano said. “So growing up, it’s been a dream of mine to come here and play under my dad and it’s been a great experience so far.”
He also has high hopes for the team this season. He maintains that despite hoping they go far, his positivity comes from what is instilled in him and the rest of the team.
“Like we say each day, ‘focus on the important things,’ Giarratano said. “‘Success will come. Strive for excellence and greatness will come.’”
Right-handed pitcher Andy Frakes had a rough introduction to baseball, but now he cannot imagine doing anything else.
“In my first game ever I got hit in the chest with a line drive and wanted to quit immediately but I got up and finished the game,” Frakes said. “I have never thought about giving up the game since. I love it.”
Like his teammates, the Sherman Oaks, Calif. native thinks highly of the roster for this year’s baseball team.
“We have a great group of guys that I think have not only the ability but the character to do great things as a team,” Frakes said.
Frakes attended Crespi High School in his hometown, where he enjoyed much success as a pitcher. In his high school career, he put up an excellent 1.94 ERA, made the All-Mission League First Team twice, and once was named the Mission League Player of the Year. Like other Dons freshman, Frakes has found his expectations of playing college baseball have shifted as he has gotten more practice and has become closer to his teammates.
“As a freshman coming in at the beginning all I wanted to do was play baseball,” Frakes said. “Now as the season comes closer my ideas have completely changed. I want to win with this group of guys.”