Bernie Custis, the first black quarterback in North America, to have Hamilton school named after him

A new high school across the street from Tim Hortons Field in Hamilton will be named Bernie Custis Secondary School.

The decision was finalized at school board meeting on Monday evening and comes after months of lobbying from members of the football and educational community who hoped to see Custis honoured.

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 in February of 2017 at the age of 88.

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.

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.

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 name was on the back of the Ticats t-shirts as part of the CFL’s recent “Diversity Is Strength” campaign.

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