Warren Moon is widely known as the first African American quarterback enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Willie Thrower of the Chicago Bears, in 1953, holds the distinction as the first modern-era African American quarterback to play in the National Football League. While the Pro Football Hall of Fame preserves the history of American football, it recently was brought to the Hall’s attention that in 1951 the Canadian Football League had an African American starting quarterback on one of its rosters.
Two weeks ago, a group of coaches, thanks to Director of Football for Legacy Global Rich McGuinness, came to visit the Hall from the Ontario (CN) Football Association. They are coordinating a trip to bring 16,000 youth athletes to the Johnson Controls Hall of Fame Village Youth Fields. The coaches enjoyed their day at the Hall immensely and it sparked a history discussion.
Don Edwards brought up the story of former Syracuse quarterback Bernie Custis, and how he became the first pro football African American starting quarterback when he suited up for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in August of 1951. Custis’s story of character and perseverance is certainly worth sharing, along with his unusual tie to Hall of Famer Al Davis, whose relationship with Custis began during their college days together at Syracuse University.
Custis was born and raised in Washington D.C. and was heavily recruited by Syracuse Head Coach Reaves Baysinger in 1947. The year after four African American players, Marion Motley, Bill Willis, Kenny Washington and Woody Strode reintegrated pro football and the same year Jackie Robinson integrated Major League Baseball. He worked his way to becoming the starting quarterback for the Orange in 1948 and was named the team’s MVP. Although Baysinger was replaced by Ben Schwartzwalder after the season, Bernie kept his starting position for the next two seasons.
His roommate throughout his years at Syracuse was none other than Al Davis. Davis was born in Brockton, Massachusetts before his family moved to Brooklyn shortly after, where he attended Erasmus Hall School. He played football there, albeit sparingly as a reserve. At Syracuse, Davis played only junior varsity baseball. The two men could have not been more different, but grew to enjoys a special bond, Davis became a sponge for football strategy soaking up as much knowledge as he could from Custis.
Don Edwards recalled, “It must have been challenging for Bernie and Mr. Davis as men of opposing pigmentation and religious background in an age where tolerance was not wide spread, maybe that is why they remained friends till the end.” Davis never lost track of his roommate. He’d offer him job after job with the Oakland Raiders, but Custis would turn them down year after year. Canada was home and he did not like to fly, but Bernie did attend Al Davis’ funeral.”
Custis was selected in the sixth round of the 1951 NFL Draft by the Cleveland Browns, before transitioning to Canada. He had hoped to compete to be Otto Graham’s backup, but at the end of training camp, head coach Paul Brown wanted him to switch positions to either the offensive or defensive backfield. Custis refused, but Brown didn’t want to cut him. He was far too talented, too athletic and too valuable to just give him away to sign with another NFL team. The only way Brown was going to release him was if could assure that he would be placed in the Canadian Football League. Brown made a deal with Hamilton, basically selling his playing rights to the team closest to the U.S. border.
“Bernie’s sister told me that prior to Paul Brown making the deal with Hamilton to send Bernie north, he gave Bernie the option to remain a Brown but at a different position.” Don Edwards explained. “Bernie’s mother was quite upset when Coach Brown called the house to explain that Bernie was headed to Canada. Apparently, she was terrified that Bernie would not survive Canada’s harsh climate!”
The native of Washington, D.C. signed with Hamilton, and started every game in his first season with the Interprovincial Rugby Football Union, one of the leagues that would later form the CFL. Custis made pro football history on August 29th, 1951, when he became the starting quarterback for the Tiger-Cats.
Custis eventually moved to running back the following season and in 1953 helped Hamilton win the Grey Cup, 12-6, over Winnipeg. He finished his pro career with the Ottawa Rough Riders, playing running back in 1955-56 and returned to Hamilton as a highly-respected teacher, principal and football coach for thirty-one years. His notable coaching accomplishments were with the Burlington Braves of the Canadian Junior Football League, where he won three Ontario championships and two Eastern Canadian titles. Sadly, Custis passed away this February at the age of 88.
Upon his death, these accolades came from the Canadian football community.
"Trailblazers are rightly remembered for being the first," CFL commissioner Jeffrey Orridge said. "Bernie Custis, the first black professional quarterback in the modern era starting with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in 1951, should be revered as well for being one of our best. A world class athlete, he excelled both as a quarterback and a running back. A tremendous leader, he was a successful coach who had a positive impact on countless young lives. A true gentleman, he brought honor to our game and our league, and provided us with a role model to emulate."
"Bernie was one of the great pioneers in our sport and our league, and he changed professional football with his courage and leadership," said Bob Young, caretaker of the Tiger-Cats. "Most football legacies have a one dimensional impact, but Bernie's universal influence on the game as a player, and his legacy in Hamilton and Ontario after his playing days, is truly legendary as a builder of the game. His elegant nature and graceful style will always be an important part of the Tiger-Cats and our entire league history."
We thank Don Edwards for bringing this great story of value to our attention. “I was struck by your mission statement which begins with ‘Honor the Heroes of the Game’ and am thankful that you are recognizing Bernie”. Edwards said. “We loved our visit and are looking forward to bringing our players to Canton, and the Hall, the most inspiring place on earth."
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