Ulysses Curtis burst onto Canadian football fields with a running style so electric he was known as Crazy Legs.
Mr. Curtis’s churning, knees-high style made him elusive prey. His dramatic rushes helped lead the Toronto Argonauts to a Grey Cup title in his rookie season in a 1950 game remembered as the Mud Bowl. Toronto again claimed the Canadian professional football championship two years later, with the fleet and powerful Mr. Curtis a valuable weapon in the arsenal.
Mr. Curtis, who died Oct. 6 in Toronto at the age of 87, retired after five seasons as the club’s all-time rushing leader, and remains in fourth place on that list nearly 60 years later. His name can still be found elsewhere in the team’s record book for several rushing standards, as well as for his seven playoff touchdowns.
“He was a power runner, he had speed, he could catch,” said Nobby Wirkowski, 87, the quarterback who guided the Argonauts to the 1952 title. “He was an outstanding halfback.”
Mr. Curtis’s career was also notable in that he joined teammates Billy Bass and Marvin (Stretch) Whaley as the first black players on the Argonauts roster as professional sports teams began to integrate following the Second World War. In his first month on the team, an opponent delivered a racial slur against Mr. Curtis during a game, resulting in an on-field brawl.
His success on the football field is all the more remarkable given that he did not even play the sport until going to college, after serving in uniform during the war.
Uncatchable force on the gridiron
Born on May 10, 1926, to Frances (née Hall) and William Curtis of Albion, Mich., Ulysses was likely named for the Union general who later became president, according to his son. The family had moved north from Jeffersonville, Ga., four years earlier after being recruited by the Albion Malleable Iron Company. Will, a veteran of the First World War, died in 1930 of pneumonia. The local American Legion post for black veterans was named in his honour.
Uly Curtis starred as a guard in basketball and as an infielder in baseball at Washington Gardner high school. He was lithe and dextrous. An older, huskier brother, Tom, told their mother to forbid him from playing football.
After graduation in 1944, Mr. Curtis enlisted in the U.S. Navy, based for a time at Pearl Harbor. One of his assignments involved delivering munitions to Saipan in the Northern Mariana Islands.
While in uniform in the Pacific, he met Larry Doby, an African-American baseball player who in a few years would join Jackie Robinson in breaking baseball’s colour barrier.
After being discharged, Mr. Curtis used his GI Bill benefits to cover tuition at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University, a historically black college in Tallahassee. Since leaving school, he had grown two inches and added several pounds to his frame. A sprint star on the track, Mr. Curtis showed himself to be a raw but uncatchable force on the gridiron. He scored 27 touchdowns in his final two seasons with the Rattlers.
The professional Los Angeles Dons expressed interest in the fleet scatback, who stood 5 foot 11 and weighed 175 pounds. Meanwhile, Argos president Bob Moran received a clipping from the Pittsburgh Courier, which catered to an African-American readership, describing the exploits of an athlete named a Negro All-American in his junior and senior years.
The Toronto team offered Mr. Curtis a tryout. The prospect of avoiding American segregation was appealing, as was the paycheque being proposed.
“I had received a letter from Argonauts which stated I would be paid $150 a game if I made the team,” he told Milt Dunnell of the Toronto Star in 1989. “Also, I would get $50 per week during the preseason. Doesn’t sound like much now but remember bread at that time was only 15 cents a loaf.”
In August, 1950, about 3,000 spectators watched the American import and fellow rookies join veterans in a split-squad practice. Crazy Legs made an immediate impression.