Having just been sworn in as a Canadian citizen, Bernie Custis, the Philadelphia-born former U.S. university star athlete, was asked by the attending judge to tell the others gathered that day what it meant to be Canadian.
One of the first words out of his mouth was, “Freedom … I told them that in defining freedom I could do most things I would like to do.”
Freedom to play football as he lived, with commitment and grace, was the essence of Mr. Custis’s life. He wanted to follow his dream and be a black quarterback in professional football, but the lily-white National Football League wanted no part of him. So it was that Mr. Custis headed north to his place in history as the first black quarterback to play in the Canadian Football League – the first in all of North America, many have said.
“He was the first black quarterback to start a game [in 1951 with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats],” insisted Warren Moon, who won five consecutive Grey Cups with the Edmonton Eskimos before signing with the NFL’s Houston Oilers and having a Pro Football Hall of Fame career. “I met him at a Grey Cup and I knew he was working in education then. I thanked him for his contribution. I knew about his history.”
Mr. Custis died Feb. 23 at the age of 88 as a much-respected teacher and former head coach at the junior football and Canadian university level. But it was as a player that Mr. Custis earned his fame early on, only to discover how imprisoned he was as a black athlete in the United States.
Mr. Custis got a taste of grandeur as a high-school athlete who played baseball, football, basketball and ran track like a startled deer. In a video that chronicled his story, Mr. Custis recalled being at home after playing quarterback in his first high-school game earlier that day.
“I was having supper with my family and the sporting news came on the radio and, lo and behold, the name mentioned was mine because I had a great day in my first high-school game. I scored three touchdowns and my name was mentioned … ‘A star is born.’ And everyone in my family at the table dropped their utensils,” Mr. Custis said. “It was quite exciting.”
The excitement really sent the utensils flying when Mr. Custis accepted an athletic scholarship to play quarterback for the Syracuse Orange. He started in 1948 and did everything he could to improve the team’s hopes for success. Although Syracuse won just 10 of 28 games during his time there, Mr. Custis set several school records, including one for the most yards passing in a season: 1,121. He was chosen as the team’s most valuable player after his first year.
Along the way, he learned what it was like to play in another team’s stadium.
“[At one game], parents threw a baby bottle at me. Can you imagine parents throwing baby bottles and yelling names at me to get me off the field?” Mr. Custis said. “I experienced a number of incidents by being called a number of names. It inspired me to play at an even higher level and I felt I could. Everything is based on one’s ability and not the colour of skin, which was the way the world should be.”
Mr. Custis’s football fortunes changed when he was drafted in the 11th round by the Cleveland Browns and reported to their training camp in the summer of 1951. That was when Mr. Custis was told he could not do what he wanted to do most. Instead of being a quarterback, his new position was free safety. Informed by head coach Paul Brown there was a quarterbacking opportunity for him in Canada with Hamilton, Mr. Custis left Cleveland after agreeing not to sign with any other NFL team. He was sold to the Ticats for an undisclosed amount of money.
On Aug. 29, 1951, Custis was the Ticats’ starting quarterback, engineering a 37-6 victory over the Montreal Alouettes at Hamilton’s Ivor Wynne Stadium. It was the stuff of legends.
“He explained to me about what happened in Cleveland,” said Chuck Ealey, who 21 years later became the second black quarterback to start and play for Hamilton. “It wasn’t the right time for a black quarterback [in the NFL] … I always tell people I had to come to Canada to play the American dream.”
There has been debate in football circles as to who was the first black quarterback in professional football. The answer depends on your definition of pro football and how you like your quarterbacks – lined up at centre the way they do now or one of four backfield players who operated out of the Pop Warner-designed, single-wing offence.
Frederick (Fritz) Pollard played for, and would coach, the Akron Pros in the American Professional Football Association, which would later be renamed the NFL. Mr. Pollard was listed at quarterback but also ran the ball and blocked. The Pros won the first NFL championship in 1920, but six years later the league began releasing its black players in a show of segregation. It would stay that way until 1946, when Kenny (Kingfish) Washington became the first black player to sign in what is considered the NFL’s modern era, post-Second World War. Before joining the Los Angeles Rams, Mr. Washington played for the Hollywood Bears of the Pacific Coast Football League, a semi-pro circuit that was only a step back from the 10-team NFL. With the Bears, the Kingfish threw touchdown passes to Woody Strode and Ezzrett (Sugarfoot) Anderson.
Washington then Strode, along with Marion Motley and Bill Willis, officially broke the NFL’s colour barrier in 1946, a year before Jackie Robinson was the first black player in major-league baseball.
“The amazing thing about Bernie Custis and Kenny Washington is what they had to deal with,” said Damon Allen, pro football’s all-time passing and rushing leader with 84,301 combined yards, not to mention a keen student of the game’s history. “They were first; they faced worse things than we did. They had death threats and they dealt with them with grace and class. They opened doors. I walked down a hallway and those doors were already open.”
Not that all hatred has been stamped out.
“On my 34th birthday, I threw five touchdown passes in Cleveland and our backup quarterback was in to mop-up,” Mr. Moon said of a game he played for Houston in 1990. “I’m standing on the sidelines and all of a sudden I’m surrounded by all these police officers and our own security man says, ‘Stay close to me, Warren.’ Some guy had said I was going to be shot. I kind of chuckled, ‘Someone wants to kill me over a football game?’ I just couldn’t believe it.”
Mr. Custis started and played every game for Hamilton in 1951. He threw nine touchdown passes and ran for seven. He was an East Division all-star who was later switched to running back where he helped the Ticats claim the 1953 Grey Cup by defeating the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.
In 1955, Mr. Custis was injured while a member of the Ottawa Rough Riders and had to retire as a player. He turned to coaching and found more success guiding the Canadian Junior Football League Burlington Braves to three Ontario titles, the Sheridan College Bruins to six Ontario Colleges Athletic Association and Eastern Canada titles before taking over the McMaster University Marauders. In 1982, he was voted top coach in the Canadian Interuniversity Athletic Union. Added to that, he scouted for the Toronto Argonauts.
Mike McCarthy was the Argonauts’ general manager and remembered how Mr. Custis filled out his scouting reports.
“He’d always write the same thing, ‘He’s a nice young man,’” Mr. McCarthy said. “I’d say, ‘Bernie, I know these guys. They’re all nice young men. But can they play for us?’”
In 1994, Mr. Custis was enshrined in the Canadian Football Hall of Fame, not as a player but as a builder. (He is also inducted into the McMaster University Hall of Fame and Syracuse University Athletic Hall of Fame.) On the 60th anniversary of his monumental first start as a pro quarterback, the Ticats honoured Mr. Custis at halftime of a 2011 home game. Joining him were Mr. Allen, Mr. Ealey and Kevin Glenn, still a starter in the CFL and benefiting from the doors Mr. Custis opened. What he said that day spoke to the freedom he achieved after leaving his homeland.
“I am so proud of the city of Hamilton,” Mr. Custis acknowledged, “for opening its arms to a young man from Philadelphia who never believed the colour of his skin should be the determining factor in the measure of a man.”
Mr. Custis leaves his sister, Joan Mayfield, nephew, Brandon Mayfield, and niece, Joanne Mayfield. His wife of 47 years, Lorraine (Dafoe) Custis, predeceased him.
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