August 17, 2011
There was a memorable off-the-field moment in the CFL this weekend, but it didn't get a lot of attention. At halftime of their game against Toronto, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats honoured their former quarterback Bernie Custis, who became the first black quarterback to claim the starting job on any professional football team 60 years ago this month. Custis' story is an incredible one, and it's surprising that it's not more well-publicized.
Custis (seen above during his time with the Tiger-Cats) came to Canada in an unconventional way. After growing up as a track star in Philadelphia and going on to a legendary college football career at Syracuse (where he roomed with future Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis), he was all set to make the Cleveland Browns after they chose him sixth overall in the 1951 NFL draft. However, famed head coach Paul Brown told him the league wasn't ready for an black quarterback just yet and offered to release him if he wanted to try and catch on as a quarterback elsewhere — but only to a Canadian team. Custis settled on trying to catch on in Hamilton because of its proximity to the border, and it proved to be a great move.
According to Steve Milton's piece on Custis in The Hamilton Spectator, Tiger-Cats' coach Carl Voyles originally wanted to play Custis at running back, but bowed to fan pressure to give him the quarterback job. That proved to be a great move; Custis started the year with a bang, leading Hamilton to a 37-6 blowout over Montreal, and eventually took the Tiger-Cats all the way to the Interprovincial Rugby Football Union (the predecessor of the CFL East) final, where they lost to Ottawa. He persevered despite taunts from some opponents, earned an all-star nod for his play and won plenty of fans. The timing of Custis' stardom is notable, too; keep in mind this was only four years after Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby broke the baseball colour barrier, and 11 years before the Washington Redskins would become the final NFL team to integrate.
However, his playing career went downhill from there. Voyles made Custis a running back before the 1952 season, and although he found success at that position too (and was named the fans' favourite player in 1954), he was shipped to Ottawa in 1955 after a mishandled injury. A year later, he hung up his cleats at the age of 26.
That didn't stop Custis from having a huge impact on the game, though. He went on to become a brilliantly successful teacher, principal and amateur football coach, winning numerous titles and accolades in the CIS, senior, junior and college ranks. He helped inspire plenty of legendary athletes along the way, too, including Tony Gabriel (the famed CFL tight end who played for Custis' junior Burlington Braves team before heading to Syracuse and then later finding success north of the border). He was elected to the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 1998, and deservingly so.
The CFL gets plenty of credit for the ground it's broken on racial issues over the years, and the more recognition the league can provide for those like Custis who helped them get there, the better. Today, the NFL's much more willing to accept black quarterbacks, and much of the credit there should go to Warren Moon, who, like Custis, got his start in the CFL when NFL teams refused to give him a shot at a quarterback job. There have been many great and important trailblazing CFL quarterbacks over the years, including Moon, Damon Allen and Condredge Holloway. Custis should be remembered alongside those players, even though he wasn't as successful and his playing career didn't end as happily. Perhaps the issues he ran into, like those of Cookie Gilchrist, are even more important; they remind us that although Canadian football broke new ground on many issues, it wasn't always a smooth process. That's why it's great to see the Tiger-Cats honour Custis; his story should be told as much as possible.