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.
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. Photo | BrokenSphere