It was a longer memorial than most, but you don’t bid farewell to a legendary pioneer/caregiver/educator/gentleman with anything less than the full 360.
A steady, emotional, stream of friends, family, extended family, fellow coaches and former players took to the microphone at the Burlington Performing Arts Centre Friday afternoon and with their words and, sometimes, tears painted a complete, moving and often funny portrait of Bernie Custis, who died last week at the age of 88.
The former Tiger-Cats player, scout and spiritual adviser, the longtime teacher and principal, the ultra-successful coach of the Burlington Braves, Sheridan College Bruins and McMaster Marauders, the first African-American quarterback in professional football.
All of those were Bernie Custis, but Bernie Custis was more than all those, as speaker after speaker made crystal clear on Friday.
“Bernie feasted on life, then graciously shared his table with everyone, ” said Rev. Tim Graham.
Similar praise – in different words by diverse voices and through personal parables – was presented throughout the memorial and in the theatre lobby before and after.
The assessments and memories were unanimous: Custis was a gentleman, a listener, a motivator, a man of peace and love who felt actions spoke louder than the words he surely had to suppress, especially in his youth when the position of quarterback was subject to active apartheid.
Custis was a coach and an educator and to him they amounted to basically the same thing. Disseminating life lessons.
The room was peppered with his former players and it was easy to see that in the Hamilton-Burlington football community, the common denominator always seemed to be Bernie Custis.
All tiers of football, from commissioner Jeffrey Orridge representing the CFL to assistant coaches in house league, came out to celebrate him.
On the stage, and in the private conversations, those players talked of his favourite directive, especially in the face of adversity: “Gentlemen, show poise.”
Custis drove Tony Gabriel to his alma mater, the University of Syracuse, which in turn gave Gabriel a full four-year scholarship that opened the door to not only a hall-of-fame pro career, but the education that helped him lead a rewarding life after the game.
“He was a gentleman, ” Gabriel said. “I don’t even remember him ever getting mad on the sidelines.”
Custis was never bitter, and he had plenty of reason to be.
He’d faced prejudice in high school and university ball, and after pivoting the 1951 Tiger-Cats well in the second year of their existence, coach Carl Voyles would not let him under centre again. It was, Custis told The Spectator in the early 2000s, racially motivated. But he said it without rancour.
“He believed that it was not the colour of your skin but the thickness of it, ” said Orridge, the CFL’s first African-American commissioner.
An enduring memory of Ivor Wynne Stadium from the first decade of this millennium has Custis and Ron Lancaster sitting on a rickety bench, day after day, under that cheap plastic overhang near the player’s entrance, yanking each other’s chain throughout practice.
You learned, if you sat with them, that you too were fair game. During the barbs and laughs, neither ever missed anything on the field.
“You’d see Bernie and the Little General walking on the field together, ” recalled former Ticats lineman Sandy Annunziata, now a Niagara councillor.
“That was our connection, those guys, to the past. I learned from him that you can’t know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve been.”
Custis was the favourite uncle in the families of former Ticats John Williams Senior and Junior, and his early teammate Dick Brown.
And on the topic of extended family, current Ticat defensive line coach Dennis McPhee, whose first coaching job was for Custis at Mac, recalled his mentor and friend saying many times, “Lorraine (his wife) and I never had kids but I had 1,500 boys and they all come back.”
And, McPhee added emotionally, “We were his sons.”
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