Pro football’s first black quarterback Bernie Custis dies at age 88

Football pioneer Custis dead at age 88

All Bernie Custis wanted was the chance to be a pro quarterback, but to Damon Allen he will always be a football pioneer.

Custis, pro football’s first black quarterback who blazed the trail for future CFL stars like Allen, Warren Moon and Chuck Ealey, died Thursday. He was 88.

Custis made pro football history Aug. 29, 1951, when he became a starter with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. It came after he was denied the opportunity to play the position with the NFL’s Cleveland Browns.

“During Bernie’s time, they could actually lock the door and keep you from actually participating,” Allen said. “I got the chance to walk through a hallway (because) they couldn’t lock the door, the door was already open because of Bernie.

“When you look at it that way, you have to give that kind of respect and honour to the pioneers before you.”

Allen, who played 23 years in the CFL following his college career at Cal State Fullerton, said Custis was a silent, humble trailblazer. He relished more getting the chance to play quarterback at the pro level than the historical significance of his accomplishment.

“That’s it,” said Allen. “The enjoyment of playing the game took away from the focus of being the first.”

Ealey, who arrived in Hamilton in ’72 after being bypassed by the NFL despite a brilliant tenure at Toledo, echoed Allen’s sentiments.

“Bernie was a total gentleman, very respectful and humble,” Ealey said. “He never used it as a framework to say, ‘I was the first black quarterback to come to Canada,’ or anything like that.

“It was more, ‘We’re all here, great, we got the opportunity.'”

Custis starred at quarterback with Syracuse University before being taken sixth overall by the Cleveland Browns in the 1951 NFL draft. But the former college roommate of Al Davis — the late Oakland Raiders coach and owner — was told he’d play safety with the club, a move he resisted.

The native of Washington, D.C., signed with Hamilton instead, starting every game under centre in his first season in the Interprovincial Rugby Football Union, one of the leagues that would later form the CFL in 1958.

“Bernie was one of the great pioneers in our sport and our league and he changed professional football with his courage and leadership,” Ticats owner Bob Young said. “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.”

Custis moved to running back the following season, and in 1953 helped Hamilton beat Winnipeg 12-6 to win the Grey Cup. Custis finished his pro career with the Ottawa Rough Riders, playing running back in 1955-56.

After a brilliant career at Washington, Moon was undrafted by the NFL and headed to Edmonton for the chance to play quarterback professionally. After leading the Eskimos to five straight Grey Cup titles (1979-83), he went on to star for several teams south of the border. He is a member of both the Canadian Football and Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Despite leading Toledo on a 35-game win streak in his three years as the starter, Ealey was bypassed by NFL teams. He became the Ticats starter early in the ’72 season and was named the league’s top rookie.

Ealey capped his memorable first CFL season leading Hamilton to a 13-10 Grey Cup win over Saskatchewan at Ivor Wynne Stadium. He went on to play for Winnipeg and Toronto in the CFL before retiring after the ’78 season.

“I think the CFL was a trailblazer,” Ealey said. “In Canada, it (race) was not an issue.

“If you could play, that’s what they wanted. We can say we were a trailblazer but we never would’ve got here if they never gave us the opportunity.”

Allen began his pro career in ’85 with Edmonton. He played for six teams over an illustrious 23-year stint, winning four Grey Cups.

When he retired after the ’07 season Allen was the leading passer in pro football history (72,381 yards). He’s currently second overall behind former Montreal star Anthony Calvillo (79,816).

After football, Custis returned to Hamilton, enjoying a long career as a teacher and school principal. He also got involved in coaching at various levels over 31 years.

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. It was there Custis coached tight end Tony Gabriel, who’d later star in the CFL with Hamilton and Ottawa before being inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame.

“RIP Bernie Custis, my Burlington Braves coach & the one responsible for my getting a scholarship at Syracuse. A great friend and a mentor,” Gabriel said on his Twitter account.

Custis led the Sheridan College Bruins to six OCAA and Eastern Canadian titles (1973-78) and spent eight seasons as the McMaster Marauders coach. 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 1998 and in 2015 received the CFL’s commissioner’s award from Jeffrey Orridge.

“Trailblazers are rightly remembered for being the first,” 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.

“In 2015, I had the privilege of presenting the CFL’s Commissioner’s Award to Mr. Custis to thank him on behalf of our league and our fans. Our thoughts and prayers are with all who loved Bernie. He changed the game by blazing a trail. He also showed us all how to travel the trail with grace and character.”

Custis is also a member of the McMaster University Hall of Fame and Syracuse University Athletic Hall of Fame.

“Our deepest condolences go out to the family and friends of Bernie Custis, former #Ottawa Rough Rider and member of the @CFHOF,” the Ottawa Redblacks said on their Twitter account.

Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press

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