“We told them to go to hell,” Bob St. Clair said in a television interview in 2002.
St. Clair, who died Monday in Santa Rosa at age 84, played 11 seasons at tackle for the 49ers, blocked for the most famous backfield in team history and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1990.
His most lasting legacy, however, may be the decision he and his USF teammates made in 1951. The small Jesuit college had gone undefeated that season and had been invited to play in the Orange Bowl. There was one condition: The Dons’ two black players, Ollie Matson and Burl Toler, had to stay home.
The team called a meeting in the school cafeteria led by Gino Marchetti, a senior and a team captain, and St. Clair, who was a junior at the time.
Never miss a local story.
It was three years before the Brown v. Board of Education decision determined that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional and more than a decade before James Meredith became the first black student to enroll at Mississippi.
Still, USF had been fielding integrated teams as early as 1930, and most of St. Clair’s squad had experienced that type of racism only once before, when they played at Tulsa in 1949.
Bill Henneberry, a backup quarterback, said everyone was gathered in the Tulsa hotel the night before the game when John Finney, a halfback from Los Angeles, stood up and announced that he and the other black players had to stay at a different hotel across town.
“He said, ‘Thanks for having us,’” Henneberry recalled. “That was the first we realized what the hell was going on.”
Two white players, George Carley and Robert Weibel, decided to go with them as a show of support.
At the game the next day, there was no track around the perimeter of the field like the California venues of that period. The crowd was directly behind the sideline. Slurs rained down from the stands throughout and Matson, a running back who would go on to a 15-year NFL career, was the object of cheap shots and late hits from the Tulsa players.
“I got hit with everything: fists, elbows, knees,” Matson told The Saturday Evening Post in 1966. “Finished that game with two black eyes, a bloody nose, and my face puffed up like a pound cake. I scored three touchdowns, and they were all called back.”
The Dons lost 10-0 but got revenge the following season in San Francisco when Matson scored two touchdowns in a 23-14 win.
When the team gathered in the cafeteria in November 1951, there was more at stake than a bowl berth. The football program, desperate for money, was due to be dissolved after the season. The Orange Bowl payout probably would have kept the sport afloat.
St. Clair had another year of eligibility and a 3-year-old daughter to care for.
“For my father, it was quite a decision,” said Lynn St. Clair-Gretton, his oldest daughter. “Because most of the players deciding were seniors, so they were moving on. My father was a junior, which meant that he didn’t have a team and he no longer had a scholarship. But he had a family. He was married and he had a child.”
Still, the meeting in the cafeteria didn’t last long.
“It was spontaneous as I recall,” Henneberry said. “When that was raised, everyone said that was bull----, that we wouldn’t go out there without them, that’s all.”
“It was short and sweet,” Dick Colombini, a guard on the 1951 team, said of the discussion. “It was a unanimous no, an overwhelming no. We were even upset about it. We were a band of brothers. We ate together. We lived together. They were our teammates.”
Said St. Clair-Gretton of her father: “He voted that ‘we’re a team.’ There wasn’t even a question in his mind.”
St. Clair played his final college season at Tulsa because it was one of the few schools that would accept his credits from USF and because he would not have to sit out a year before playing.
There were 51 players on that 1951 Dons squad. Nine of them went on to play professionally, and three – St. Clair, Matson and Marchetti – are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, the only three players there from the same college team. The former teammates get together once a year, most recently at a banner ceremony – the banner reads “honor over glory” – at USF in January.
The gatherings grow smaller every year.
Carley was killed in the Korean War. Weibel died in 2012. Matson passed in 2011 while Toler, who became the NFL’s first black on-field official, died in 2009. A memorial for St. Clair is being planned.
Colombini, friends with St. Clair for 66 years, estimated that fewer than half the players from that squad are still alive.
“It’s getting thinner every year because we’re getting older,” he said.
Read Matt Barrows’ blogs and archives at sacbee.com/sf49ers.