When I started covering the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in 2009, Bernie Custis was still a regular fixture at practice. He would sit with a couple of other guys in the stands at old Ivor Wynne Stadium, a few rows behind general manager Bob O’Billovich. The nature of Bernie’s role was never exactly clear and I certainly had no idea of his legacy within the game of football.
That changed over time, of course. As much as I’ve come to accept that Bernie Custis will never receive the kind of recognition he deserves for his accomplishments, in recent years both the team and the CFL took steps to honour him. This piece by my friend Steve Milton on the 60th anniversary of his first start for the Ticats in 1951 captured both magnitude of Bernie’s contributions to the game and the spirit of the man: soft spoken humility and grace built on a bedrock of strength and dignity.
Bernie died this week at age 88. I wrote his obituary for the Hamilton Spectator and very few things I’ve done have elicited the response I’ve received the last few days. Countless friends, former players, and fellow coaches have reached out to share a memory or two of Bernie.
Winnipeg Blue Bomber offensive coordinator Paul LaPolice, a former Ticat assistant, reached out via Twitter to tell me about how Bernie treated him and his wife like family. I got a call from a Ticat fan in their 90s who told me that lost in all the accolades, Bernie was “the greatest effin’ football player I ever saw.” Another person told me many of his former players and fellow coaches spent the final days and hours with Bernie, making sure he wasn’t alone. Bernie and his wife Lorraine weren’t able to have children and more than one person told me that Bernie treated his players like they were his sons.
As I was writing my story on Bernie, I came to believe the contributions he made as a teacher, a coach and a person over the last 50-plus years were just as remarkable as his accomplishments as a player. Bernie was a pioneer and deserves more credit than he received but he changed so many lives for the better. It is, in some respects, even more impressive.
We need to find a way to honour Bernie Custis. Whether it’s the city of Hamilton, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats or the Canadian Football League – or all three – his legacy and contributions need to be preserved in a meaningful way. Several people have suggested the team retiring his No. 99. Others like the idea of a Bernie Custis Secondary School. There should certainly be some place in Tim Hortons Field where fans and visitors (and new beat writers) can read about his legacy. The difficult and emotional days after his passing may not be right time to make those decisions but the sentiment and commitment to recognize his accomplishments cannot be lost.
I came to know the story of Bernie Custis and, in some small way, came to know the man. In recent days, I’ve learned more and realized just how much I missed. The only thing to do now is to make sure that the lessons and the spirit of the man are not forgotten.