A third-generation Toler returns to Bay Area football.
Toler III back in bay, where grandfather, father played
It required a circuitous route through Germany, Washington, D.C., Italy, Canada, Orlando and San Antonio, but the prodigal son of the First Family of Berkeley athletics has returned.
Burl Toler III is back at Memorial Stadium this season as Cal’s running backs coach, the magnitude of which will be felt in full Saturday when his father is celebrated during a game against UCLA that, for many, will have the feel of a family reunion.
“It’s a dream come true,” said Burl Toler Jr., who will receive the Glenn Seaborg Award while his son prowls the sideline. “He’s always wanted to be involved in coaching, and to be back at his alma mater with familiar surroundings, it’s tremendous. “He’s back home.” The Bay Area became the Tolers’ home in 1945, when 17-year-old Burl Toler Sr. moved from Memphis and started a three-generation legacy of excellence.
Toler Sr. was on the City College of San Francisco’s football team that won the mythical junior college national championship in 1948 and was one of the standout play-
ers on USF’s undefeated 1951 team.
The Dons, who had three future Pro Football Hall of Famers on the roster, were invited to play in the Orange Bowl — but only if they left their two black players (Toler and Ollie Matson) at home. The team refused the invitation.
Toler Sr. broke the color line for NFL officials, becoming the first black referee in any North American pro sport in 1965. He was an educator for 17 years, including being the first black principal at a secondary school in San Francisco and serving as a trustee at USF.
Toler Sr. died in 2009 in Castro Valley at the age of 81.
“He used to always say: ‘Do your best, and the best will be good enough.’ That’s part of my coaching and teaching philosophy and part of the way I live my life,” said Toler III, who has childhood memories of wondering why his grandfather kept dropping his yellow handkerchief on the field during games. “When you have higher expectations for yourself than others do, it’s not a surprise how much you accomplish, and that was part of his philosophy. He was just going to do everything he could do, and he ended up doing it all. …
“He was never going to be denied.”
Those messages were imparted to Toler Sr.’s six children, including his namesake. Toler Jr., a Cal linebacker who went from walk-on to captain and helped the team win a share of the Pac-8 title in 1975, has gone on to a distinguished career as an architect and project manager.
On Saturday, Toler Jr. will receive the Glenn Seaborg Award, named for the Nobel Prize-winning chemist and peace activist and given to a Cal alum in recognition of his post-college accomplishments. For Toler, that’s quite a few: He’s managed or assisted with the design on construction projects of well more than $1 billion in the Bay Area, including at SFO, the UCSF Medical Center and UC Berkeley. He also created the Career Council board, a group of Bay Area professionals who mentor Cal football players; has been the president of the Big C Society; served as a member of the Board of Regents at both St. Ignatius and Bishop O’Dowd-Oakland high schools, and was the director on the West County Waste Water District Board.
“I’ll cherish this honor for life, because Seaborg embodied the completeness of life: melding together athletics, academics and being successful as a human being,” Toler Jr. said. “Cal is a place that I truly love and enjoy, and it’s benefited me, my wife and our family in such a profound way that my words cannot pay justice to how good it had been.
“Hopefully, we’ve honored the university in a really good way with the Toler name.”
Toler Jr. met Susan Tamayo, his future wife, when they were freshmen at Cal in 1974 — a meeting that Susan says came about because she could always hear Toler’s voice in the Unit 2 dorms.
They’ll celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary in February, having never lived more than 30 minutes from the Berkeley campus and often using Memorial Stadium as the backdrop for their lives.
They had five children, four of whom were student-athletes at Cal and all of whom were dressed in blue and gold from Day 1. Toler III remembers sitting under the scoreboard in the north end zone at Memorial Stadium, using programs to make paper airplanes and confetti as a toddler and taking the games more seriously as he got older.
He would race with his brother, Cameron, through the corridors at halftime, taking turns being Russell White and the lead blocker as they weaved through the fans. They made sure to be near the tunnel five minutes before the end of the game in hopes of catching a high five or a sweatband from one of the players.
It was an extra special Saturday when Toler III caught a glove. He’d feel like a god for the rest of the afternoon. There was no stopping him in the children’s game that reliably played out on the hillside by the Pappy Waldorf statue after every Cal game.
“It’s magic that he’s back,” said Cameron Toler of his brother, who has returned to Cal after single-season stints at Fresno State and UC Davis. “Blue-and-gold and football are in his genes and in his heart. I knew he would find a path back to the game and to being back at Cal.”
After walking on at Cal in 2001, Toler III earned a scholarship as a sophomore, became one of quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ favorite pass targets in 2003 and graduated with 69 catches for 873 yards and four touchdowns.
While making ends meet with teaching, a T-shirt business and personal training, Toler III decided he had unfinished business in football and chased a pro career — everywhere.
After sitting out a year to recover from knee injuries, he went to Cal’s pro day in 2006 and signed as an undrafted free agent with the Raiders. The day he got cut in Oakland, he played for the Arena Football League’s San Jose SaberCats.
Toler III made an NFL Europe team in Cologne, Germany, in 2007 and was on Washington’s NFL roster later that year. He zigzagged between chances with Washington, San Jose and Italy in 2008, and then, the real tour of tryouts began.
From 2008-10, Toler III would drive to Los Angeles ... to Las Vegas ... anywhere for a shot. One of those tryouts led to a spot with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats of the Canadian Football League in 2010. He played for the SaberCats again in 2011 and for the arena league’s teams in Orlando and San Antonio in 2012-13.
“I had scratched and clawed for every chance, and at that point, I figured: ‘I’ve pretty much played in every league possible. I’ve checked off all my boxes,’ ” Toler III said. “My body was still healthy, but I started thinking about my next move. Since football still wasn’t out of my system, I looked at coaching options.”
Six days after his playing career ended, he started coaching. Toler III was Cal’s special teams quality control coach from 2013-15, working long hours for meal money and experience. He was hired as Fresno State’s wide receivers coach in 2016, and coached the receivers at UC Davis in 2017.
When Cal hired Justin Wilcox as its head coach, a 10th coaching staff spot opened and Wilcox reached out to Toler III for what would be an 85-second job interview.
“It was a no-brainer,” said Wilcox, who had stayed in touch with Toler III since he was a player and Wilcox coached the Bears’ linebackers
Toler III was supposed to sign his contract Jan. 5, but his wife, Drea, was in labor with Burl IV. Knowing the consistently changing life of a coach’s wife, she told him to sign and then come back to the hospital, but Cal allowed him to wait until the following Monday.
“That’s how dedicated I am,” said Drea Toler, who grew up in Stockton watching Minnesota Vikings’ games with her father. “Being the wife of a football coach is a bit like a roller coaster. You love the thrill of it, but there are ups and downs.
“Because of his playing career, he’s kind of been groomed to always work hard, but not to have any expectations. He’s completely immersed himself in each program at each step, and if one of us needs to step up and carry the other, that’s what we do.”
From August to December, Drea Toler does much of the carrying with daughter Lale, 10, and Burl IV, now 9 months old. She said her husband takes out the garbage, but she sees him only about two nights a week during the football season.
On Tuesdays and Thursdays, Lale trains with Golden Bear Gymnastics from 4-5:45 p.m., and then stops by her dad’s office afterward. In there is a trophy Lale made for him out of foil and spray painted gold five years ago.
There are family photos everywhere, and Burl IV’s name has been scribbled onto Cal’s running backs depth chart.
Patrick Laird is tops on that chart, and Lale joined his summer reading program. Alex Netherda is fourth on that chart, and he said he’s never played better than he has since Toler III returned to campus.
“Coach Toler is the man,” said Netherda, who grew up a Cal fan in Santa Rosa. “In my eyes, he’s kind of like a living legend, especially at Cal. He played here and went on to play in the pros. He’s an incredible coach.
“He’s a really big carrot guy. Not much of the stick guy. That’s awesome. I’ve had a lot of the stick in the past, which is not fun. He’s not hard on us about mistakes that we make, but he absolutely makes sure that we know what is expected of us.”
Toler III said: “Even though I have the dream wife, dream family and dream job, I’m not done. I have aspirations of doing a lot more. … Having the Toler name, you want to strive for greatness and make sure you never tarnish it.
“You want to continue the legacy.”
Burl Toler III, who was a receiver at Cal from 2001-04, has returned to the school as its running backs coach.
Toler had playing stints in the NFL, Europe, Canada and the Arena Football League.
Cal running backs coach Burl Toler III, pictured with his wife, Drea, and children Burl IV and Lale, followed his grandfather and father into football.
A cutout of the late Burl Toler Sr., the NFL’s first black referee, is placed for a photo with his family and friends at Toler’s alma mater, USF, in 2017.
Burl Toler Jr. (center) will receive the Glenn Seaborg Award at Memorial Stadium on Saturday. The honor recognizes his post-college accomplishments