Do You Remember the NFL’s First Modern-Era African-American Quarterback?
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.
Source: Pro Football Hall of Fame