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.