He’s 82 now, still the “quiet type” but a legend nevertheless. Bernie Custis, who makes Burlington, Ontario home, is a relatively unknown in the minds of sports fans, in particular football fans, but recently the CFL’s Hamilton Tiger Cats paid tribute to Custis.
Originally from Philadelphia, Custis had a brilliant career at Syracuse University and was drafted 6th overall by the NFL’s Cleveland Browns in 1951. A quarterback, Custis realized Cleveland would not be giving him a chance to try out for the position – there were no Black quarterbacks in pro football back then. Head Coach and owner Paul Brown wanted Custis to try out for safety but when he realized Custis really wanted the quarterback spot he agreed to release him, but only to a Canadian team. Several had called Brown to express their interest in the 22 year old.
Custis chose Hamilton because he says it was the closest pro football city to the US border. On August 29, 1951 Bernie Custis entered the history books as the first Black quarterback to earn a starting job on a pro football team, not only in Canada, but in all of North America. He only played one full season as Quarterback despite making the All Star Team. He was converted (some say demoted) to the halfback position. In early 1955 Custis suffered a severe charley horse injury, which was medically mishandled. He was traded to Ottawa after first being asked to take a 66% pay cut. The following year he retired from the game at age 26.
He eventually became a teacher and one of the most successful football coaches in the history of Canadian amateur football. He won two seniors titles, three Ontario titles and two Eastern Canadian titles, plus six provincial community college championships, took the McMaster Marauders from seventh place to first in his first year of an eight-year tenure and was eventually named top coach in Canadian university foot ball.
On hand for the tribute were Quarterbacks Damon Allen, Kevin Glenn, Chuck Ealey – all of whom played for Hamilton at one time – a position made possible by the man some call The Jackie Robinson of Quarterbacks.