Bernie Custis, pro football's first starting black QB, is finally given his due

Andrew Bucholtz
Legendary  trailblazer Bernie Custis was honoured with the CFL's 2015 Commissioner's Award.

WINNIPEG Most of the attention around the Shaw CFL Awards is on the trophies handed out to current players and coaches, but it was one handed out to a guy who played even before the league's official formation in 1958 that stood out this time around.

On Thursday night, rookie CFL commissioner Jeffrey Orridge gave out his first Commissioner's Award (presented by Microsoft), and he chose a remarkably fitting subject: Bernie Custis. Custis became professional football's first black quarterback to win a starting job in 1951, suiting up for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats after the Cleveland Browns chose him sixth overall in the NFL draft, but tried to convert him to safety, telling him the NFL wasn't ready for a black quarterback. There were plenty of challenges in the CFL thanks to his race, too, but he did phenomenally well in the chances he did receive, and the league hasn't always spotlighted him and how important he was. That's changed now; as Orridge said in a release, Custis paved the way for the many successful black quarterbacks who followed him, and even for black executives like Orridge himself.

“Bernie Custis changed the face of our game forever,” Orridge said “Before Henry Burris and Damon Allen and Warren Moon and Chuck Ealey, there was Bernie Custis. Many of us here tonight would not have had the opportunities we’ve had, were it not for people like Bernie Custis."

Things weren't always smooth for Custis at any level. Even at Syracuse, he spent his first two years playing halfback and defence until Ben Schwartzwelder took over; that led to Custis being installed at quarterback, where he led the Orange to some great success. After he went to Canada, coach Carl Voyles initially wanted to use him as a running back, but Custis played well in a preseason game and fans showed up to watch him practice, forcing Voyles to give him a chance. Custis led the Tiger-Cats to a 7-5 record and a first-round playoff win, and he was named a league all-star.

Despite that, though, Voyles turned him into a halfback before the next season; Custis still did well there, but a mishandled injury in 1955 led to a trade to Ottawa and the end of his playing career. His time at quarterback in the IRFU (the predecessor to the CFL) was brief, but it was significant; Orridge said during the award presentation Thursday that Custis' career paved the way for the black quarterbacks who followed, including Burris, who won the Most Outstanding Player Thursday night.

"Without Bernie Custis, there might have been no Ealey, Moon, Allen or Burris," Orridge said. "As the phrase goes, 'If I can see further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.' Bernie Custis is one of those giants."

Custis went on to be a giant in numerous areas of football, staying in Hamilton, going into education (where he worked for 35 years) and becoming one of the most successful amateur coaches out there at the junior, senior and CIS levels. In particular, he coached the McMaster Marauders for eight seasons and was named the CIS Coach of the Year in 1982. He also coached players like legendary tight end Tony Gabriel in junior with the Burlington Braves. Despite the remarkable things he did as a player and as a coach, though, Custis is often underappreciated, as Orridge said.

"We don't hear his name as often as we should."

The 87-year-old Custis was unable to attend in person, but godson John Williams Jr. (a former CFL player himself who also narrates Gridiron Underground, the documentary that focuses on black players in the CFL) accepted on his behalf, and said Custis' accomplishments were meaningful for him.

"It's because of men like Bernie Custis, Chuck Ealey, Warren Moon, men that made tremendous sacrifices, and those sacrifices allowed all of us to play this game," Williams said.

Custis also sent in a touching video message, and one that shows how far the league has come.

"It's a humbling and tremendous honour," he said. "It's a remarkable era when the CFL's first black commissioner is honouring the CFL's first black quarterback."