Former Ticat was first black starting quarterback in pro football history
It is with deep sadness that the Hamilton Tiger-Cats learned of the passing of Canadian Football Hall of Famer and former Tiger-Cat legend Bernie Custis. He was 88 years of age.
“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 Hamilton 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.”
Born on September 23, 1928 in Washington, D.C., Custis became the first black starting quarterback in professional football history in 1951 with the Tiger-Cats, immediately earning all-star status in the Interprovincial Rugby Football Union, the forerunner of what is today the East Division of the Canadian Football League. In 1952, Custis moved to halfback and played three more seasons with the Tiger-Cats, winning a Grey Cup championship in 1953 before joining the Ottawa Roughriders where he would finish his playing career in 1955.
Custis returned to the Hamilton area and went on to a sterling coaching career at the junior, college and university levels. Highlighted by his appointment as an educator and head coach of the McMaster Marauders from 1981 to 1988, he also won numerous junior football championships as a coach. Inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame as a builder in 1998, Custis is also a member of the McMaster University Hall of Fame, the Syracuse University Athletic Hall of Fame, and was honoured by the CFL in 2015, winning the Commissioner’s Award given annually to an individual or group that has made an outstanding contribution to the development of football in Canada.
A star quarterback at Syracuse University in 1948, 1949 and 1950, Custis set numerous school records that would last for decades. Drafted by the Cleveland Browns in 1951 – at a time when there were no black quarterbacks in the NFL – Custis came to Canada looking for an opportunity to play the position he loved. It was a path followed over the year subsequent years by several U.S. college stars, including Warren Moon, who had starred at the University of Washington, and Chuck Ealey, who was undefeated at the University of Toledo.