Football pioneer Bernie Custis passes away at age 88

Hamilton Tiger-Cats legend and football pioneer Bernie Custis has passed away. He was 88.

Custis became the first African-American quarterback to earn the job of regular starter for a professional football team – not just in Canada, but anywhere in North America – when he took over command of the Ticats on Aug. 29, 1951.

A star quarterback at Syracuse University, Custis was drafted sixth overall by the Cleveland Browns in 1951 but was not given the chance to compete at the position by head coach and owner Paul Brown. Reluctant to trade him to another NFL team, Brown gave Custis the choice of CFL teams and dealt him to the Tiger-Cats.

An all-star his first season with Hamilton, Custis was moved to halfback by head coach Carl Voyles where he played three more seasons, winning the 1953 Grey Cup, before being dealt to the Ottawa Roughriders where he finished his playing career.

Custis returned to the Hamilton area and began a long career as an educator and was head coach of the McMaster Marauders from 1981 to 1988 while also winning a number of junior football championships.

He was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame as a builder in 1994.

Drew Edwards

Drew Edwards

Drew Edwards is into his eighth season covering the CFL and the Ticats for the Hamilton Spectator. He is the founder and editor of 3DownNation.
Drew Edwards
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Drew Edwards
About Drew Edwards (958 Articles)
Drew Edwards is into his eighth season covering the CFL and the Ticats for the Hamilton Spectator. He is the founder and editor of 3DownNation.

14 Comments on Football pioneer Bernie Custis passes away at age 88

  1. Lindsay Wilcox // February 23, 2017 at 1:07 pm //

    R. I. P. Mr. Custis. You will be missed, but you will live on in our hearts.

  2. Watched Bernie way, way back in the 1950’s. As I recall he became a running back after a year or two as a running QB. He stayed in Canada, worked as an educator, also did some coaching at the college level. A good man, RIP Bernie.

  3. A true pioneer of the game. Although I’m too young to know a lot about him I know he will live on in football fans hearts forever

  4. Jim Bentley // February 23, 2017 at 2:18 pm //

    I have known Bernie since his playing days when he and his good friend Dick Brown visited my Grandfather, who they worked with at Dofasco. I also played 7 years for Bernie at the Burlington Braves and Sheridan College. He was enormously respected by his players and large groups of us would get together with him regularly, the last time at Christmas, not only to reminisce but to thank him for all the life lessons he taught us using football as a tool. These gatherings were made up of Hall of Famers and those of us who didn’t go further in football but whose lives were made better by Bernie’s lessons. All of his former players recognize the phrase, often repeated through the season, “You must maintain your poise”, that lesson alone has benefitted me countless times.

    His wife, Lorraine, once told me that all of us players were his sons. He has improved the lives of all of us who played for him, I will miss him greatly as will hundreds of formers players and colleagues. We love you Bernie, Rest In Peace your life improved the lives of all those you came in contact with.

  5. What a milestone…glad the Tiger-Cats started off a great career by giving Bernie the opportunity to play QB back in 1951. RIP.

  6. A great player, person,teacher, coach, Tiger-Cat, and gentleman. A wonderful example for all of us. Thanks, Bernie, for showing us the way to play and the way to live.

  7. Bob McCrudden "Goober" // February 23, 2017 at 3:37 pm //

    The BUGLE is silent–Goober

  8. Kent Laidlaw // February 23, 2017 at 3:58 pm //

    What an amazing man. Coach, friend, mentor, father figure.You have no idea how you helped me develop as a athelete and a man.
    Love you Bernie

  9. Rest in peace, Bernie. You are one of the nicest people I have ever met. First class all the way! Loved those lunches with you and Sudsie! Canada has lost a GREAT man.

  10. Sincere condolences to his family and friends.

    Based on the touching comments here so far, Custis made a difference for a lot of people. His legacy is clearly much, much larger than what he’s known for on the field in the CFL, and extends beyond his HOF-recognized role as a builder in Canadian football.

  11. Billinburlington // February 23, 2017 at 9:19 pm //

    My father-in-law loves to tell the story of how he-as an elementary school principal- was tasked with mentoring, evaluating and providing constructive feedback to new student teacher in the subject of phys-Ed. The student was none other than Bernie Custis – a highly skilled athlete and recently retired professional Football Player. My father-in-law – who admitted to being barely athletic – was proud of how he gently tip-toed in proving gentle advice to the up-and-coming teacher. My FIL readily admits that Bernie knew -and demonstrated- way more about athletics than he would ever know in his lifetime. My FIL gave him top marks in that subject and to this day laughs at the irony of the situation.

  12. When I get to heaven and St. Peter is undecided about me, as he could well be,I will just say “I played for Bernie”. Done deal.

  13. Marty Mathieson // February 24, 2017 at 12:13 am //

    My family had the honour of calling Bernie a friend for over 60 years. My mother met him when they both worked in Dofasco’s offices and they struck up a friendship that lasted until my mother’s passing in 2009. I counted him as a mentor and friend and one of my life’s regrets is that I did not have the opportunity to play for him. My Tiger-Cat jersey proudly has “Custis 99” on its back, and if I ever have to replace it, the new jersey will as well. My condolences to his family and friends. Godspeed, Bernie.

  14. Anyone know where funeral is being Held I need pay my Respects
    He was one of nicest Men I’ve every know Thanks coach

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