When he crossed the border into Canada back in 1951 as a black man coming from a difficult racial past and still not considered intelligent enough to be a professional quarterback because of the colour of his skin, could Bernie Custis have ever believed that the city in which he was landing would one day name a high school after him?
The question causes former Hamilton Tiger-Cat — and Custis’ godson — John Williams Jr. to start shaking his head slowly and breaking into a wide smile.
“To have a school named after him?” he says, letting the thought percolate a bit. “Nah.”
Yet on Monday night, that’s exactly what happened. The Hamilton public school board voted to name the new high school being built right across from Tim Hortons Field after the man some call football’s Jackie Robinson. Not only was Custis the first black quarterback in pro football with the Ticats, a Grey Cup champion, a Canadian Football Hall of Famer, McMaster Hall of Famer and a Hamilton Sports Hall of Famer, but he was also a winning coach and an educator for over 30 years.
As a young man he came to this city, let it love him and then stuck around to the end of his days loving it back. This moment was a celebratory exclamation point on that beautiful relationship.
“We know this country is far from perfect,” Williams told the school board. “But at that time it gave him an opportunity nobody else would give him in the world.”
More specifically, this city did that.
The choice to put his name on the school was made after a passionate months-long debate that became more complicated than most would’ve expected.
Back in February, the board asked for public input to find a name for the new school. Nearly 1,300 people responded with 467 of those suggesting Custis, the top choice by a significant margin. Far behind in second place were Nikola Tesla and Trillium.
Yet when the committee charged with whittling the choices and bringing a recommendation to the board offered their suggestion, they chose Shannen Koostachin. She was an Indigenous teen who’d fought for a proper school in Attawapiskat who died in a car accident before she could see it happen. Her story is undeniably inspiring. Yet only one person had put her name forward.
At this point, the public feedback and the controversy began. Wanting more input, the board threw the issue to the students to get a sense of what they thought. Before school ended in May, it presented the stories of the five new finalists — Custis, Koostachin, Tesla, Trillium and Scott Park — to roughly 350 students at Delta and Sir John A Macdonald, since they’ll be the ones living with this name. It then asked them to do two things: select the three names that inspire you most and select the three names that best represent your community.
Custis, Trillium and Scott Park were the answers to both questions.
At Monday’s board meeting, a student trustee argued that poll should be disregarded because he felt teachers influenced the students to vote a certain way. Other trustees suggested Custis’ name wouldn’t even be in the mix if the new school wasn’t across the street from Tim Hortons Field and this wasn’t a football issue.
“If the school was two blocks over in either direction, would we still be having this discussion?” trustee Christine Bingham asked.
Ultimately though, the board did what it should’ve done. It sorted through some terrific suggestions and chose one that’s not only an inspiration, a trailblazer, an educator, a mentor, a star, a humble man, an example, an overcomer and on top of everything else, a local hero.
Of course, the name and the location fit perfectly. Next September when TSN’s cameras beam the Labour Day game across the country, they should be able to catch a beautiful shot of BERNIE CUSTIS SECONDARY in the background. But reminding Canada of a proud part of our city’s history isn’t the only reason for the naming.
While Tesla already has a road in this city and Koostachin deserves some honour somewhere, we should be using these rare chances when a naming opportunity arises to recognize local people. It doesn’t have to be an athlete. It could be an entertainer, an artist, a volunteer, a politician — OK, let’s go a little easy on the politicians — a hero, a community builder or anything else. But Hamilton should honour Hamilton.
So pat on the back to the public board for getting this one exactly right.
As he was lobbying for Bernie during the meeting, Williams (who now works with Indigenous youth) explained how Custis changed perceptions and impacted many young people both during his athletic career and in his three decades as an educator. He was only able to do that because of what Hamilton gave him. Even so, he gave back more than what he got until his death in 2017 at age 88.
That’s an enormous inspiration for any student who’ll one day call that place home.
“Bernie Custis represents an idea of what you can do with opportunity,” Williams says. “I think we need more of that.”