Naming high school after him the perfect way to honour Ticats star Bernie Custis

Scott Radley, Hamilton Spectator

It was just days after the Hamilton public school board created an online poll asking for suggestions for a name to be given to its high school under construction across the street from Tim Hortons Field, that CHCH sportscaster Bubba O’Neil made his pitch.

Bernie Custis Secondary. It has to be Bernie Custis Secondary.

He’s right, of course. The man behind that name was a football star. He was a pioneer. He was a legendary coach. He was an educator. He was a wonderful human. He checked off every box you could want and then some.

The suggestion was so obvious that it immediately caught traction. Between the on-air plea, a couple tweets that followed and a Facebook post — which O’Neil’s quick to point out came from a grassroots campaign that started before he even got involved — he says he got more responses than for anything he’d ever done before. Seems multiple generations of Hamiltonians are fans of the legend for all kinds of reasons.

“What I think is amazing about him … is the fact that people who don’t even know what he accomplished on the football field have so much respect and love for him as a coach or as their teacher or principal,” O’Neil says.

For those a little fuzzy on the Bernie Custis story, here’s the Reader’s Digest version.

In 1951, after graduating from Syracuse University, the star quarterback was drafted by the Cleveland Browns. But black men didn’t play QB in those days. So, he was told he’d be a safety.

He didn’t agree and was eventually sold to the Tiger-Cats where he became the first black quarterback in pro football history, earning his way onto the all-star team in his first season. He went on to win a Grey Cup with Ottawa.

When he retired, he began working as an elementary school teacher and later as a principal while coaching junior football. Eventually, he took over the Sheridan College squad leading it to an 86-14 record and six-straight championships.

Then, in the early ’80s, he took over the McMaster Marauders and quickly turned the program into a winner, twice being named Ontario coach of the year and winning the national honour in 1982.

He passed away a year ago at age 88 but only after finding his way into the Hamilton Sports Hall of Fame, the Canadian Football Hall of Fame, the Syracuse University Athletic Hall of Fame and the McMaster Hall of Fame.

Former Ticat John Williams recently produced and narrated a documentary about Custis called “Gridiron Underground.” He says one of the true measures of the man was how he was addressed. Some called him Bernie but most — even many of his former players — called him Mr. Custis. Not because of a lack of connection, but rather from a place of respect.

Williams says having his old friend considered for such an honour is remarkable.

“I think it says a lot about what’s possible in this city and this country,” he says.

Ever since the new stadium was being contemplated on the site of the old Ivor Wynne, the concept of a precinct rather than a standalone building was pushed. It’s taken a while but with the Canadian Football Hall of Fame soon moving in, it’s beginning to happen. Continuing that momentum by naming the neighbouring school (opening in the fall of 2019) after a man who blazed a trail, starred in the sport and shone as a beloved educator makes far too much sense to ignore.

Best of all, every time TV cameras and the visiting media came to Hamilton to cover a game, they’d be reminded — and likely remind others around the country — that it was here that a man received an opportunity denied everywhere else.

“It’s almost hallowed ground,” Williams says.

He’s right. So is O’Neil. So are all the others retweeting and writing and pushing for this. This particular school in this particular location should be named after someone who made an indelible mark in both sports and education and was as proud of his adopted city as it was of him.

The school board is expected to discuss this at a meeting sometime next month.

Hopefully it hears all these folks and agrees.

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29 Comments on Naming high school after him the perfect way to honour Ticats star Bernie Custis

  1. Wingback // April 4, 2018 at 6:47 pm //

    Nice way to honor him. People that make contribution to society as a whole deserve this type of honor.
    I can’t stand when people name schools after sports figures just because of their success in sports. Like Tom Landry and Walter Payton

  2. Dundas dude // April 4, 2018 at 7:05 pm //

    It is too bad so many decisions are based on identity politics, now. I think we were more enlightened a couple decades ago when decisions were decided on the merit of the individual rather than from what group he/she was born into. This emphasis on identity politics will not have a good outcome on our society. Maybe Mr Custis wins on merit but not because he was a “pioneer” . Can’t we just simply be individuals again who did outstanding things?

    • What on earth are you on about?

    • Dundas Dude. Your comments certainly identify you.

      • Dundas dude // April 5, 2018 at 4:12 pm //

        What is that supposed to mean? I am tired of the blatant racism we see lately. What does the colour of Mr Custis’ skin have to do with naming a high school after him (it is mentioned several times in this article)? Who cares?

  3. Flanker41 // April 4, 2018 at 7:09 pm //

    What a wonderful idea. BCHS?

  4. Billinburlington // April 4, 2018 at 7:52 pm //

    As a retired elementary school principal, my father in law has some pretty good stories. His favourite was the time he was tasked with the responsibility of supervising a new student teacher – who happened to be named Bernie Custis.

    And it wasn’t in any subject – he had to Supervise and grade Mr Custis on his ability to teach phys-Ed. The irony was not lost on my father in law that he- as a non-athelete- had to grade one of the CFL’s greatest quarterbacks and all round athletes on his ability to teach physical fitness! Needless to say my father in law saw natural teaching skills and talent in Mr Custis and gave him the high passing marks he earned.

    A terrific idea for the new school’s name.

    • Great story Bill. Thanks for sharing that. 🙂

    • Flanker41 // April 5, 2018 at 8:36 am //

      A good story, Bill and a wonderful response to the Dude from Dundas.

      • Dundas dude // April 5, 2018 at 4:14 pm //

        I liked Bill’s story, how is this a response to me??

        • Flanker41 // April 5, 2018 at 5:57 pm //

          If I was wrong, I apologize.
          Bernie Custis was a pioneer in the CFL BECAUSE he was black. It was this ‘identity’ that made him a pioneer. He was also a good person and went on the become a Canadian citizen, a school principal and coach. That is why a school might be named for him.

          • Dundas dude // April 5, 2018 at 6:32 pm //

            Fair enough. I guess I am overly sensitized by the context and the background (ie Sir John A MacDonald ‘s name being seriously considered for removal from school names, and his image already excised from the $10 bill). I always liked him as a coach at Mac, and I guess I wasn’t clear that I wasn’t commenting about the coach, but rather the context in our society in general. Peace.

          • Flanker41 // April 5, 2018 at 6:59 pm //

            I didn’t know Sir John A. coached at Mac!

  5. solara2000 // April 4, 2018 at 9:07 pm //

    A great story. A great Canadian sort. A great immigration story. A great human story.

  6. Scottsask // April 4, 2018 at 9:21 pm //

    Absolutely, great story.

  7. With all due respect to the former Scott Park students…this one should be automatic…I met Bernie Custis a couple of times while my Uncle was playing for Mac (I was 11) he was fantastic with me. A true nice guy, and his achievements in sport and education deserve to be recognized.

  8. This has been a very hard thought for me. I am a Scott Park Alumnist. I truly believe the new school should be Scott Park. While I admire Mr. Custis for his athleticism, sense of community and his educational contributions, the former students and staff need to be taken back out of the box in storage and shine again. Scott Oark was a positive source in the community and deserves a second chance. I think it has been unfair that the sports caster has used his position to unfairly advertise the name name change. Most of us don’t have that opportunity.
    As a former proud student and alum, keep Ward three’s high school Scott Park Secondary.

  9. waveman // April 5, 2018 at 9:49 am //

    although Bubba O’Neil knows absolutely nothing about the CFL, his rants about the league are an embarrassment to chch, this isn’t a bad idea. too many of our schools are named after those spoiled royals a million miles away. there should actually be some names of past canadian war heroes on our schools

    • Harrison // April 5, 2018 at 12:20 pm //

      I’m shocked this idea came from Bubba as he does seem to hate the CFL – but have to agree with him that it is a great idea.

      The documentary “Gridiron Underground” featured Bernie and as a Canadian I was shocked how bad some of these guys had it before joining the CFL. If you haven’t seen the documentary, it’s a great watch for any CFL fan about the acceptance of teams, fans, and the people of the cities in the CFL to these guys.

      • waveman // April 5, 2018 at 3:58 pm //

        it didn’t originate with O’Neal, hes not that smart! it was a campaign already underway, he just carried it forward. I’ve seen the documentary, theres still bloodlines in america that respect our leagues history.

      • Flanker41 // April 6, 2018 at 10:55 am //

        Thanks for the comment on “Gridiron Underground”. I wasn’t aware of it. I watched the 8 min. trailer on Youtube and placed my order with the Ticat’s Store yesterday.

  10. RalphInTheCreek // April 5, 2018 at 10:20 am //

    Maybe if we call it St. Bernie’s.

  11. My wife is a close relative of one of the Riders who lost his life in the terrible plain crash, flight TC 810, returning from the all-star game in 1956. Mr. Custis will always be remembered as a compassionate person who reached out to the bereaved family.

  12. Drew’s Dirty Beard // April 6, 2018 at 8:24 am //

    I’m actually also a Dude from Dundas, with a basic clue re identity politics and understand how there is a part to this story which includes the extra struggle BC went through because of the colour of his skin.
    But it is very interesting to me, the stories and the comments that come out about BC being such a solid guy, even from angles other than his progress for other African-Americans behind him into the CFL.
    My dad taught with him, I met him, he was a wonderful man who always made time and showed an interest— I also know kids in his school loved him.
    This is a great idea and I hope the Board does it.

  13. Catsfan1867 // April 6, 2018 at 11:09 am //

    With the lack of parking and infrastructure in the area, that land should never have been wasted on a school that could have been placed anywhere else.

    • I’m not sure what “infrastructure” you’re referring to, but re: parking I’ve never had an issue finding a spot (on street mind you, not yards or lots) within a 10 minute walk of the stadium. What would you have preferred? A giant garage that will take everyone an hour or more to exit?

      What does this issue even have to do with the idea of naming a high school after the great Bernie Custis?

      This is your teachable moment.

  14. Catsfan1867 // April 8, 2018 at 2:44 pm //

    Not sure what kind of entitlement makes you think you can condescending instead of actually saying anything thoughful or insightful, but I have no issue with the naming of the school. I have issue with the school being placed on the only piece of land available to correct the fact the new stadium was only placed there for sentimental reasons and has very little practicality.

    Parking in yards and grocery store lots is fun, but not befitting of a multimillion dollar stadium.

    No nearby hotels of quality.
    Not easily accesible from the highway on game days.
    Few bars, cafés or restaurants to go to after the game that are close.

    • Sounds like your issue has less to do with the school, and more about the stadium location decision (placed where it is not based on sentimentality, but because it was the only option that was feasible to pursue in time for the Pan Ams, after all the dithering and bickering between the city and the team)

  15. Marty Mathieson // April 9, 2018 at 8:43 pm //

    As a man who had the privilege of knowing Mr. Custis personally as a friend of my family, I can think of no better honour.
    Bernie transcended identity politics. He was a man who refused to allow his “identity group” to define who he was at a time and place where that was very difficult to do. Like many immigrants before and after him, he found opportunities here in Canada that he did not have at home, and he made the most of them.
    He was not simply a great athlete. He was an educator of the first rank. To two generations of kids in Ancaster and Dundas, he was Mr. Custis the principal. He was an outstanding molder of young men and women as both an educator and a coach. His players, as the old saying goes, would have run through brick walls for him. While I understand the desire for the old Scott Park name – my high school got renamed as well – this, I think, is one time renaming is appropriate given the calibre of the person proposed.

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