Thinking of Bernie Custis and how to honour him

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.

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.
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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.

10 Comments on Thinking of Bernie Custis and how to honour him

  1. Shelagh Rogers of CBC has a nice interview with Bernie Custis. Here’s the link:

    http://www.cbc.ca/radio/popup/audio/listen.html?autoPlay=true&clipIds=,,&mediaIds=884544579910,884549699566,884574787819&contentarea=radio&subsection1=radio1&subsection2=currentaffairs&subsection3=as_it_happens&contenttype=audio&title=2017/02/24/1.3997993-as-it-happens-friday-edition&contentid=1.3997993

  2. This is a shortened link to the interview with Bernie Custis by Shelagh Rogers of CBC.

    http://ow.ly/6OVE309lPcq

  3. Paul Garner // February 25, 2017 at 11:54 am //

    I love the suggestion of naming the new High School after him. It is right next to Tim Horton’s Field coupled with the fact that Bernie spent his working life working for the School Boards. I think he was with the old Wentworth School Board which has now merged with the Hamilton School Board. And his pioneering pertaining to race and what he had to overcome is something that should be remembered by everyone in our community. Great idea.

  4. Scholarship under his name
    Maybe rename the half Maple leaf trophy given to Eastern Champion after him

  5. Great story Drew. And I agree with Paul Garner 100%. I was too young at the time of Bernie’s career with the Cats, but I certainly remember his name. Something should be done so that ALL Ticat fans remember his name.

    • I met him once in public, said hi, and he gave me as much time as I wanted. Just from that one brief encounter, he left an impression of a man of character. Ticats…do right by him.

  6. The CFL should honour Bernie Custis by playing a game every August 29th honouring the date that a Black Quarterback was given the 1st start at Pro Football’s most important position. I would rotate it to every CFL city and use the date to focus on Black Canadian achievement in Canada. I live out West now and no one here knows Linc was Canada’s first Black MP. Bernie was a close family friend and a teacher and he would appreciate a Legacy of education…

  7. As a young kid Bernie was one of my Ticat idols. I didn’t see him play but his exploits sure excited me on the radio. 20 years later I met him on a Sunday morning at his school gym after playing pick up basketball with a lot of the guys he coached over the years and some Tiger Cats ( Chuck Ealy, Al Bennett ). I was feeling embarrassed because my friend and I hadn’t asked him for permission to play because he wasn’t there when the games got were underway. Not to worry, Bernie made a point of introducing himself, asking our names and telling us the we were welcome to come back anytime. I did. This began our lifelong friendship. Whenever I supply taught at his school he would always ask me “Is there anything I can do for you?”

  8. Once nicest People I’ve met in my Life
    Class all the way and great coaching mind
    If I had Question about X’s and O’s all I had to do was ask
    But we always talked about Life and How to enjoy our time on earth
    Coach C was they kind man everyone loved and respected .

    Good Speed to him.

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