A history of opportunities for black players: something the CFL should celebrate

There's even more focus on CFL history this week than normal thanks to this being the 100th Grey Cup, and one particularly notable aspect keeps coming up; how this league provided opportunities for black players, especially quarterbacks, at a time when American-based pro football leagues wouldn't. That's not to say the CFL's racial history is perfect; in fact, stories like those of early trailblazers like Cookie Gilchrist and Bernie Custis demonstrate that things were often far from ideal in those days. Still, on the whole, the CFL should be very proud of the progress it made on equality for players, and that should be something that's recognized this week. This was demonstrated well in Hamilton Spectator columnist Steve Milton's piece Monday on the CFL's historical relationship with the NFL and other American leagues; one of the most interesting segments there was on how the CFL found some of its best talent by going after players like Custis, Gilchrist, Johnny Bright, Chuck Ealey, Condredge Holloway and others who were lightly-regarded by the NFL thanks largely to their race. From Milton:

The Grey Cup crystallizes trends in Canadian football, providing their historical benchmarks. So, when Chuck Ealey became the first black quarterback to win a professional football championship, leading the Hamilton Tiger-Cats to the 1972 Grey Cup title at Ivor Wynne Stadium — 16 years before Doug Williams became the first African-American to start at quarterback in the Super Bowl — it was merely the final step in a logical progression. Long before, in 1951, Bernie Custis of those same Tiger-Cats became the first black quarterback to win steady employment as a professional quarterback. Anywhere.

Herb Trawick was the first black Canadian pro player, hired by Lew Hayman to play for the Montreal Alouettes in their founding season of 1946 after Hayman saw how Jackie Robinson was accepted earlier that year with the Montreal Royals. Trawick, a lineman, recovered a fumble for a touchdown in the 1949 Grey Cup game and played against the Eskimos running back Johnny Bright, a brilliant American who had been the victim of a racial incident playing college ball in 1951 and the No. 1 draft choice of the Philadelphia Eagles, whom he rejected in favour of Edmonton, because he "would have been their first Negro player and I didn't know what kind of treatment I would receive with all those southern players coming into that league."

It was not altruism that put the Grey Cup so far ahead of American championship games in sociological advances. The Canadian game needed players and the U.S. had some good ones they would not use because of prejudicial attitudes.

Perhaps the most dramatic example of that is Warren Moon, who wasn't chosen in the 1978 NFL draft despite an impressive college career at Washington that he capped off with a Rose Bowl win. Moon went on to tear up the CFL with the late 1970s and early 1980s Edmonton Eskimos before heading to the NFL in 1984 (interestingly enough, with the Houston Oilers, who were then coached by former Eskimos' coach Hugh Campbell). He went on to a dominant NFL career with the Oilers, Minnesota Vikings, Seattle Seahawks and Kansas City Chiefs and is a member of both the Canadian Football Hall of Fame and the Pro Football Hall of Fame (the only other man with such a distinction is Bombers' and Vikings' coach Bud Grant). Without his time in the CFL, though, Moon likely wouldn't have received an NFL shot at quarterback. As he told The Globe And Mail's Sean Gordon this week, Canada gave him a real shot.

"It was an opportunity to showcase my skills and to keep playing quarterback, I hadn't ever played any other position," Moon said.

Gordon's piece illustrates how Moon decided on Canada thanks to the perceived opportunity, and how he only left after accomplishing all he could in the CFL.

Like many big-time National Collegiate Athletic Association stars, Moon didn't know all that much about the CFL before he joined the league — just that no one wanted to turn him into a receiver or a defensive back, and that it had been a welcoming place for black quarterbacks such as Chuck Ealey, Jimmy Jones and Condredge Holloway ("all guys I had looked up to growing up and in college," he said).

By the time Doug Williams became the first black man to play quarterback for a Super Bowl winner in 1988, Moon already had five championship rings with the Edmonton Eskimos — the penta-peat from 1978-82 that ranks the Esks among football's great dynasties.

"I was really happy playing in Edmonton, I signed a long-term contract there, I genuinely loved it, but I had pretty much done everything there was to do in the CFL," he said.

Since then, the situation's changed substantially. Black quarterbacks like Moon, Williams, Donovan McNabb and others have shone in the NFL, and although the situation there still isn't perfect in the eyes of many (including Moon, who's spoken out on perceived racial bias against Panthers' quarterback Cam Newton several times over the last few years, it's no longer a world where black stars have to go to Canada to get a fair shot. That doesn't minimize the historic importance of the CFL's role, though. There are plenty of great reasons to celebrate this league and its history this week, but the opportunities it provided for those disregarded by the NFL are a key one. It's a crucial part of the league's past, and something that CFL fans, players and executives should be proud of.