Ti­cats leg­end Bernie Custis re­mem­bered as foot­ball trail­blazer, ded­i­cated coach

The Hamilton Spectator - - FRONT PAGE - DREW ED­WARDS

They’ve been meet­ing a cou­ple of times a year for more than a decade, a ro­tat­ing cast of former play­ers, fel­low coaches and friends gath­er­ing at Chaps restau­rant in Burling­ton to cel­e­brate Bernie Custis.

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 Wed­nes­day at 88.

“He had such an im­pact on so many lives on so many lev­els of foot­ball,” said Ja­son Riley, who met Custis while play­ing for the Ti­cats and is a high-school coach. “It was just an op­por­tu­nity to share sto­ries and spend time with Bernie.”

Custis be­came the first AfricanAmer­i­can quar­ter­back to earn the job of reg­u­lar starter for a pro­fes­sional foot­ball team — not just in Canada, but any­where in North Amer­ica — when he took over com­mand of the Ti­cats on Aug. 29, 1951.

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 coach Carl Voyles — in a racially mo­ti­vated move — 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’s time as Ti­cats QB was an im­por­tant mile­stone that paved the way for fu­ture stars like War­ren Moon, Chuck Ea­ley and Da­mon Allen.

“Trail­blaz­ers are rightly re­mem­bered for be­ing the first. Bernie Custis, the first black pro­fes­sional quar­ter­back in the mod­ern era, should be revered as well for be­ing one of our best,” said the CFL’s Jef­fery Or­ridge, first black com­mis­sioner of a North Amer­i­can pro­fes­sional sports league.

“A tremen­dous leader, he was a suc­cess­ful coach who had a pos­i­tive im­pact on count­less young lives. A true gentle­man, he brought hon­our to our game and our league, and pro­vided us with a role model to em­u­late.”

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 3123-1 record and was named Cana­dian univer­sity foot­ball’s top coach in 1982.

Jim Bent­ley played for Custis for seven sea­sons, first as a mem­ber of the Braves and then at Sheri­dan Col­lege.

He said his team­mates were aware of their coach’s time as a player, though not the sig­nif­i­cance of it.

“Ev­ery­body had such great re­spect for him, he be­came like your sec­ond fa­ther,” Bent­ley said.

“At that time — when your par­ents don’t know a damn thing be­cause they’re your par­ents — it was vi­tal to have some­one who could guide you in the right way,” Bent­ley said.

“He made an enor­mous dif­fer­ence in our lives.”

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 story was fea­tured promi­nently in the 2015 doc­u­men­tary “Grid­iron Under­ground” which was nar­rated by John Wil­liams Jr., him­self a former Ti­cat whose en­tire fam­ily was close to Custis.

“Ath­letes to­day need to be more aware of why they are able to do the things they can do. You don’t learn about these things in school — I know that I didn’t grow­ing up,” Wil­liams said. “It’s easy to touch the stars when you’re stand­ing on the shoul­ders of gi­ants.”

The last meet­ing at Chaps hap­pened seven or eight months ago and fea­tured play­ers and former col­leagues from across Custis’ coach­ing ca­reer. Cur­rent Ti­cats as­sis­tant Dennis McPhee, who coached with Custis for more than decade, said they de­cided to take a photo to­gether as the evening was wind­ing down.

“There must 40 guys in this pic­ture, him sit­ting in the mid­dle of all of us,” McPhee said. “Ev­ery one of those men has 10 sto­ries about Bernie. That’s 400 sto­ries and ev­ery one of them would have been pos­i­tive, ev­ery one of them would have been about what a class act he was, what kind and gen­tle per­son he was.”


Bernie Custis, pro­fes­sional foot­ball’s first black quar­ter­back, and a Tiger-Cat icon, died Thurs­day at the age of 88.


Trail-blaz­ing Bernie Custis of the Hamil­ton Tiger-Cats.

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