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Birmingham-Area’s Gary Burley Played in the NFL; Releases Book on the Game’s Pioneers 

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By Mark Kelly

Alabama News Center

When the Cincinnati Bengals hosted the San Diego Chargers on January 10, 1982, a trip to the Super Bowl was at stake. The contest itself proved unremarkable; the Bengals cruised to a 27-7 win. But the game is still remembered today because of the conditions in which it was played.

The wind chill in Cincinnati that day plunged to 60 degrees below zero. It remains the coldest game in the history of the National Football League, known to this day as “The Freezer Bowl.”

Involved in the game, in two very different capacities, were two people who would meet more than 30 years later. One was Gary Burley, a 29-year-old defensive end for the Bengals then in his sixth season in the NFL after a standout career at the University of Pittsburgh. Interestingly, Burley’s most vivid memory of being on the field that frigid day is not of a particular play or moment in the game, but of seeing a teammate spit and watching the saliva turn into a ball of ice and roll along the ground.

“It was too cold for anybody to be out there that day,” Burley said, laughing. “But we were playing to go to the Super Bowl, so you didn’t think about the cold. You just thought about winning the game. But seeing that spit turn to ice got my attention.”

In New York City that day, the temperature was a comparatively balmy 6 degrees above zero. It was considerably warmer in the Manhattan studios of NBC Sports where Donna Francavilla, a 21-year-old intern and broadcasting student at Rutgers University, was watching the game while assisting studio host Bryant Gumbel.

Fast forward to 2016, when Burley and Francavilla met, well after their respective life and career paths had led them both to Birmingham. Today, they are neighbors in Hoover’s Greystone community and have been working together for the past two years to complete Burley’s book, Glory: The Struggle for Yards.

“It’s amazing that our paths crossed,” Francavilla reflected. “It’s even more amazing that I wound up helping Gary finish a project that has meant so much to him.”

Inspired by the lives and careers of five Black men who were football pioneers, Glory also tells Burley’s compelling personal story. The book was released digitally in late August and is now available in hardcover and paperback.

The idea for the book originated when Burley was contacted by a friend, former NFL wide receiver David Smith, who urged him to write it and offered to collaborate on the research. At the time, Burley was undergoing chemotherapy for cancer – one of a series of serious health problems he faced and ultimately conquered. He declined the project.

“I had so much going on with my health that I just didn’t feel that I could do it,” Burley recalled. “Dave went ahead and started working on the book, but then he became ill and died.”

After Smith’s death in 2020, Burley picked up the project in earnest, working with children’s author and literacy advocate Ralph Brooks, who researched the subjects of Glory and began compiling photographs, some of them previously unpublished. As the book progressed, Burley asked his friend Francavilla, an award-winning journalist and communicator, for her thoughts, and in 2021 asked her to serve as editor. Francavilla agreed, and soon was “promoted” to co-author.

“It started with me asking if the book could be restructured in the way it highlighted the inspirational stories of these five men whose behavior exemplified how to lead and blaze a trail,” Francavilla explained. “Gary and Ralph were very open to my suggestions, and here we are.”

Telling those stories, said Burley, required him to learn not only about the men he and his collaborators were writing about, but also to confront the impacts of racism and segregation, which he said he did not experience while growing up in Ohio.

Prior to entering college at Pitt, where he earned first-team All-America honors in 1974, he attended Wharton County Junior College in Texas. It was there he encountered what he remembers as his “first direct experience” of racism when, traveling to a game, the team bus happened upon a Ku Klux Klan rally.

“The coaches told me to get on the floor of the bus and be quiet,” Burley said. “It made me start asking what we can do to stop racism, in our personal lives and in our society. And it made me think about what people before me had to confront.”

Gary Burley and Donna Francavilla talk about the recent release of Burley’s new book, “Glory: The Struggle for Yards,” co-authored by Francavilla and Ralph V. Brooks. (Mark Kelly)

True Pioneers

Those impacts are included in the stories of the five men featured in Glory:

Charles Follis (1879-1910), the first Black man to play professional football on an integrated team. A native of Virginia and the son of former slaves, Follis, known as “The Black Cyclone,” played for the Shelby Blues of the Ohio League from 1902 to 1906.

Henry “Motorcycle” McDonald (1890-1976), a speedy halfback for the Rochester Jeffersons of the New York Pro Football League from 1911 to 1917. McDonald became one of the best-known Black players in America in the days before the formation of the National Football League (NFL) in 1920. He also played baseball professionally in the Negro Leagues, for the Cuban Giants and the Pittsburgh Colored Stars.

Fritz Pollard (1894-1986), a player and coach with various teams during the 1920s. After a college career at Brown University in which he became the first Black player to be named to an All-America team, Pollard was one of the first two Black players in the NFL, and the next year became its first– and, until 1989, only – Black head coach. He played and coached until after the 1926 season, when he and the other Black players in the league at the time were effectively banned from the NFL, which did not begin signing Black players again until after World War II.

Gideon Edward Smith (1889-1968), the first Black varsity athlete at Michigan Agricultural College (now Michigan State University) from 1913 to 1915. In 1921, he became the head football coach at Virginia’s Hampton Institute (now Hampton University), compiling a .665 winning percentage and securing five Colored Intercollegiate Athletic Association titles in 20 seasons.

Burl Toler (1928-2009), a star player on the undefeated 1951 University of San Francisco football team that was not invited to a bowl game because it had two Black players. In 1965, Toler became an NFL referee, making him the first Black field official in a major American sports league. He was the head linesman in the 1981 AFC Championship game in Cincinnati – the same “Freezer Bowl” in which Burley played and that Francavilla watched from the NBC Sports studios in New York. Later, Toler was the first Black official to work the Super Bowl, ultimately officiating in three of them. He was also a schoolteacher and principal.

“These guys were true pioneers,” Burley said of Glory’s subjects. “I believe readers will find their stories inspirational, just as I did. I’m excited about getting the book out and hopeful that it will make an impact.”

Beyond their mutual passion for the subject matter of Glory, Burley and Francavilla share a commitment to giving back to their community. Burley is the founder of Pro Start Academy, an annual four-week program that, in addition to developing their aptitude for football, provides student-athletes with academic training and other skills to give them competitive advantages on the field and in the classroom.

Burley also hosts an annual golf tournament at Hoover’s Greystone Golf & Country Club, with the most recent event held on Oct. 16. To date, the tournament has raised more than $40,000 for scholarships to Miles College, where Burley’s wife, former Alabama Power executive Bobbie Knight, is president. Knight is also chair of the Birmingham Times Media Group.

Francavilla has long worked with the Alabama Media Professionals organization to urge young people to choose journalism as a career. Earlier this year, she competed for the title of Ms. Senior Alabama, a contest she entered in part to promote awareness of acoustic neuroma, a non-cancerous and potentially life-threatening tumor that affects the brain and inner ear. Francavilla was diagnosed with the condition and had brain surgery to relieve it in 2019. It’s an experience she and Burley share; he suffered a stroke in 2022 that also required brain surgery.

“That just strengthened the bond between us,” Francavilla said. “I think I was able to give Gary some comfort and help ease his mind about what he was going through. It just underscores the theme of this book, which is about men who overcame obstacles.”

For Burley, completing Glory is a signal accomplishment. Getting the book written and released has been a long process, at times a struggle. It was a challenge he said he was ultimately prepared to meet because of his career on the gridiron.

“In football, you learn to put everything you have, physically and mentally, into winning,” Burley said. “You learn that winning doesn’t come easy. That’s a lesson that transfers to life.”