They’ve been meeting a couple of times a year for more than a decade, a rotating cast of former players, fellow coaches and friends gathering at Chaps restaurant in Burlington to celebrate Bernie Custis.
A football pioneer who led the way for a generation of black quarterbacks, Custis also influenced thousands of lives as a coach, teacher and mentor in the more than 50 years that followed his playing career. He died Wednesday at the age of 88.
“He had such an impact on so many lives on so many levels of football,” said Jason Riley, who met Custis while playing for the Ticats and is now a high school coach. “It was just an opportunity to share stories and spend time with 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 in North America — when he took over command of the Ticats on Aug. 29, 1951.
A star quarterback at Syracuse University, Custis was drafted sixth overall by the Cleveland Browns in 1951 but wasn’t given the chance to compete at the position by head coach and owner Paul Brown because of his race. Reluctant to trade him to another NFL team, Brown sold his rights to the Tiger-Cats.
An all-star his first season with Hamilton, Custis was moved to halfback by head coach Carl Voyles — in a move that was racially-motivated — where he played three more seasons, winning the 1953 Grey Cup. He finished his playing career in 1956 after spending three years with the Ottawa Rough Riders.
But Custis’ time as quarterback of the Ticats was an important milestone that paved the way for future stars like Warren Moon, Chuck Ealey and Damon Allen.
“Trailblazers are rightly remembered for being the first. Bernie Custis, the first black professional quarterback in the modern era, should be revered as well for being one of our best,” said the CFL’s Jeffery Orridge, first black commissioner of a North American professional sports league. “A tremendous leader, he was a successful coach who had a positive impact on countless young lives. A true gentleman, he brought honour to our game and our league, and provided us with a role model to emulate.”
Following retirement, Custis returned to the Hamilton area and began a long career as an educator and football coach.
He compiled a 74-20 record over eight seasons with the Burlington Braves of the Canadian Junior Football League, including three Ontario championships and two Eastern Canadian titles, and led the Sheridan College Bruins to six OCAA and Eastern Canadian titles (1973-78.) He also spent eight seasons as the McMaster Marauders coach where he registered a 31-23-1 record and was named Canadian university football’s top coach in 1982.
Jim Bentley played for Custis for seven seasons, first as a member of the Braves and then at Sheridan College. He said his teammates were aware of their coach’s time as a player, though not the significance of it.
“Everybody had such great respect for him, he became like your second father,” Bentley said. “At that time — when your parents don’t know a damn thing because they’re your parents — it was vital to have someone who could guide you in the right way. He made an enormous difference in our lives.”
Custis was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 1994 and is also a member of the McMaster University Hall of Fame and Syracuse University Athletic Hall of Fame.
The Tiger-Cats honoured Custis in 2011 to commemorate the 60th anniversary of his first start with the club, and his story was featured prominently in the 2015 documentary “Gridiron Underground” which was narrated by John Williams Jr., himself a former Ticat whose entire family was close to Custis.
“Athletes today need to be more aware of why they are able to do the things they can do. You don’t learn about these things in school — I know that I didn’t growing up,” Williams said. “It’s easy to touch the stars when you’re standing on the shoulders of giants.”
The last meeting at Chaps happened seven or eight months ago and featured players and former colleagues from across Custis’ coaching career. Current Ticats assistant Dennis McPhee, who coached with Custis for more than decade, said they decided to take a photo together as the evening was winding down.
“There must 40 guys in this picture, him sitting in the middle of all of us,” McPhee said. “Every one of those men has 10 stories about Bernie. That’s 400 stories and every one of them would have been positive, every one of them would have been about what a class act he was, what kind and gentle person he was.”