While the CFL has rightly earned plaudits for giving black players opportunities before other leagues did, it still often wasn't easy for those players north of the border. Stories of players like Cookie Gilchrist, Bernie Custis and Chuck Ealey illustrate that there were still plenty of challenges for black players in Canada, particularly in the early days of the CFL and its predecessor leagues. Still, the experience had positive effects on many, and many of them stayed in Canada after their playing careers ended, making further contributions to the country in other fields. Both sides of that are illustrated in an excellent Toronto Star obituary published Monday on the odyssey of Ulysses "Crazy Legs" Curtis, the famed Toronto Argonauts running back who passed away earlier this month. Curtis played with the Argos from 1950-1954, winning two Grey Cups, and he was the team's first black player. As George Haim writes, Curtis endured challenges thanks to his race, but still gained from his CFL experience and went on to be a renowned educator:
Less than a decade after his retirement from the team, he was a trailblazer again, becoming one of the first black teachers in what was then the North York Board of Education.
[Lauwers, now a vice-president at Ross Memorial Hospital in Lindsay, said his coach and phys-ed teacher was “intent on setting us all on the right path . . . a powerful looking man, a great motivator, someone who had presence in a room.”
Curtis retired from football after the 1954 season due to a knee injury, and chose to stay in Toronto to bring up his two daughters. Warren, born two years later, said his father liked Toronto’s school system and everything else it had to offer.
Curtis opened up a cleaning business but soon decided a career working with youth would be more fulfilling. He became a teacher and worked at North York schools for 30 years.
Curtis was Allan Cole’s phys-ed teacher in the early 1970s, recalling him as .“a gentle giant (with) arms on him like Goliath.”
Cole remembered Curtis as being a taskmaster who pushed his students to run an eight-minute mile — “a tough fellow, but always fair.”
Curtis coached junior football teams in the GTA over the years and also helped coach York University’s team when [former Argos teammate Nobby] Wirkowski was head coach in the 1960s.
While the Michigan-born Curtis made his mark in Toronto both on and off the field, he still faced significant obstacles living there:
Curtis earned $200 for each regular season game, with more in bonuses; earning money in the off-season was more difficult. In 1950, a newspaper story headlined “Crowd caresses Curtis. He wishes a boss would” explained how even a superstar like Curtis couldn’t find a job in Toronto after football season.
He had to move back to Albion every off-season to work at Corning Glass. Yet Warren Curtis says his father thought it was important for the first black Argonaut to be a success, and Ulysses was proud that he was respected in Toronto — “He set a good standard for people to follow,” said Warren.
Ulysses Curtis had felt racism in those early days in Toronto. He was quoted in a 2004 newspaper article as saying it “wasn’t extreme. You weren’t turned out of a restaurant, but you’d find it other ways. If you were interested in renting a property, then showed up and the owner saw you were black: ‘Sorry, it’s been rented.’ ”
It's vital to keep this kind of context in mind when reading about race relations in the CFL. Yes, early in its history, the CFL tended to be more accepting of black players than its American competitors, and that held true for quite a while for quarterbacks. However, that doesn't mean Canada was ever racism-free, or that going there was a uniformly positive experience for players like Curtis. That perhaps makes his life even more remarkable, though. Despite the adversity he faced on and off the field in Toronto, he decided to spend his life making it a better place for others. That's impressive, and it's a story that should be remembered.