February 23, 2017 5:34 pm
Updated: February 23, 2017 6:42 pm

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

Bernie Custis is seen in this undated handout photo.

CFL / Handout
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Bernie Custis, pro football’s first black quarterback who blazed the trail for future stars like Warren Moon, Chuck Ealey and Damon Allen, has died.

He was 88.

Custis made pro football history Aug. 29, 1951, when he became a starter with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, who confirmed his death Thursday.

He starred at quarterback with Syracuse University and was selected 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.

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The native of Washington, D.C., opted to sign 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.

Custis moved to running back the following season and in 1953 helped Hamilton win the Grey Cup game, downing Winnipeg 12-6.

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 in the NFL. 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 and headed to Hamilton to play professionally in 1972. He became the Ticats’ starter later that year 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.

Allen came to the CFL following his collegiate career at Cal State Fullerton, joining the Eskimos in 1985. Allen played for six teams over an illustrious 23-year career, 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 1994 and in 2015 received the CFL’s commissioner’s award from Jeffrey Orridge.

“Bernie Custis changed the face of our game forever,” Orridge said at the time. “Before Henry Burris and Damon Allen and Warren Moon and Chuck Ealey, there was Bernie Custis.

“Many of us here tonight would not have had the opportunities we’ve had, were it not for people like Bernie Custis.”

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.

 

© 2017 The Canadian Press

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