Bernie Custis’ forgotten legacy

Bernie Custis

It’s one of the great slights in Canadian culture that the name Bernie Custis doesn’t slide effortlessly off the lips of every announcer, every writer, every analyst who has dared chronicle the trajectory of sports history in this country, and the one immediately to the south.

On Aug. 29, 1951, Bernie 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 on the continent.

Custis broke the quarterbacking colour bar just four years after Jackie Robinson became an international hero as the first African-American to play major-league baseball.

Yet Custis is relatively unknown outside the Hamilton catch basin. Part of that is because he played only one full season as quarterback — despite making the all-star team. It’s also because we don’t do heroes well in this country and because Custis is more self-effacing than self-promoting. He’s reluctant to don the mantle of pioneer.

“I’ve always been the quiet type,” the 82-year-old Burlington resident says softly.

Damon Allen, Kevin Glenn, Chuck Ealey and Tony Gabriel will help with the on-field tribute, and that is no accidental quartet. Allen, Glenn and Ealey are all African-Americans who played quarterback for the Ticats, their path broken and smoothed decades earlier by a 22-year-old, multi-talented athlete from Philadelphia.

Gabriel, a Hall of Famer, was a star with the dominating junior Burlington Braves when Custis coached them in the 1960s and ’70s, and was among the first of a steady stream of Hamilton athletes to migrate to Syracuse University. Again, because of Custis.

“I don’t think of myself as a pioneer,” Custis said this week. “But there was a paving of the way.”

The Tiger-Cats were in just the second year of the amalgamation of the Wildcats and Tigers when Custis arrived in town, fresh from a brilliant career at Syracuse University and a brief, illuminating stopover at the training camp of the NFL’s Cleveland Browns.

He had been drafted sixth overall in 1951 by the Browns “but when I got to their training camp, I realized I was not going to be given a chance at quarterback.”

He had instinctively migrated toward the group of quarterback candidates, including the legendary Otto Graham, but head coach and owner Paul Brown immediately sent word that he wanted to see Custis.

“He told me he only wanted me to try out for safety,” Custis recalled. “And I told him that I felt I could play quarterback. Paul said, ‘You’re way ahead of your time.’ I respected Paul and he had had numerous calls about me from Canadian teams. So he said, ‘If you do want to try out for quarterback, I’ll release you. But only to a Canadian team.’ ”

The team Custis selected was the Tiger-Cats because Hamilton was the pro football city nearest to the U.S. “and I wasn’t familiar with Canada at all, so I wanted to be close to the border.”

When Brown said Custis was ahead of his time, he meant by more than a quarter of a century. Even eventual U.S. Football Hall of Famer Warren Moon had to start his career in Canada in 1978 because the NFL wasn’t really interested in black starting quarterbacks. The deep-seated prejudice that African-Americans lacked the “intelligence” for the most important spot on the field took that long to loosen its southern-influenced grip.

“That (fact) was not something I ever zeroed in on, but I certainly felt it,” says Custis, who later spent 35 years as a teacher and principal.

Although there was a vibrant “Negro” college system with plenty of talented and daring quarterbacks, no “major” — meaning white — college had an African-American pivot until Custis started for The Orange.

But he played halfback and defence for his first two years until there was a coaching change and the legendary Ben Schwartzwalder brought the wing-T formation to Syracuse. He took one look at Custis’ magic arm and legs (he was Pennsylvania State high school sprinting champion) and saw neither black nor white. He saw “quarterback.”

Custis’ Syracuse roomie was teammate Al Davis, now the iconic owner of the Oakland Raiders. Davis has since offered his old friend “countless jobs, but I have an issue with flying and haven’t been on a plane in 41 years,” Custis laughs.

Custis was Syracuse’s MVP and in his college final game scored four touchdowns, “but there were some southern schools that wouldn’t put Syracuse on their schedule because of me,” he says, without a hint of bitterness.

Originally, Hamilton coach Carl Voyles wanted to play Custis at halfback, but because of well-attended workouts at the old H-AAA grounds and based on a brilliant pre-season game against Ottawa, there was overwhelming fan pressure for him to start at quarterback.

“They used to get about 1,000 people to watch early-season practice at the H-AAA,” he recalls. “But when I started working out, the whole place was packed.

“I didn’t find any real prejudice against me in Hamilton. I think there was more a look of curiosity from the people. I sensed it, that people were looking, even when I was walking down the street. The black population in Hamilton was just about nil when I came here.”

He got the start against Montreal in the home opener, played brilliantly in an upset 37-6 wipeout victory, then led the team to another three straight victories and stayed under centre the rest of the season.

Prior to his first game, the Spectator said “the Negro pivot player has passed and ran himself into the minds of the fans,” and later often referred to him as “the coloured quarterback, Custis.”

But Custis said he never heard pejoratives from the fans — only some players, most notably the Alouettes, who were loaded with southern players. Yet, they also had their own African-American, lineman Herb Trawick.

“I don’t think Herb knew what was going on with me out there,” Custis says.

Custis was voted the all-star quarterback in the four-team Big Four, as the CFL East was then called. But the very next year, Voyles made him a halfback — essentially a demotion. Many who were around at the time suggested that Voyles, a southerner, couldn’t deal with the concept of an African-American star pivot, but Custis shies away from that discussion.

From the start, Custis was the Cats’ biggest attraction, winning the fans’ nod as the most popular player in both his rookie year and in 1954. But in early 1955, when Custis suffered a severe charley horse, which was medically mishandled, Voyles traded him to Ottawa after first asking him to take a 66 per cent pay cut.

The following year, at the age of 26, Custis’ playing career was through.

He eventually went into education in the Hamilton area for 35 years and also became one of the most successful coaches in the history of Canadian amateur football. He coached the East York Argos, won a couple of senior titles in his four years at the helm of the Oakville Black Knights, coached the Burlington Braves from 1964 to ’72 and won three Ontario titles and two eastern Canadian titles in the then very competitive junior ranks.

He also won six provincial community college championships in his eight years with the Sheridan Bruins, took the McMaster Marauders from seventh to first in his first year of an eight-year tenure and was eventually named top coach in Canadian university football.

Custis says facing prejudice as an African-American athlete in the 1940s helped him be more empathetic toward athletes, but says his coaching success was related more to his “other job” as a teacher and to the schooling his parents gave him in “always judging a man by his work, not by the colour of his skin or other factors.”

– a version of this story originally appeared in the Hamilton Spectator on Aug. 12, 2011.