Bernie Custis

Bernie Custis
No. 99
Date of birth (1928-09-23) September 23, 1928
Place of birth Washington, DC
Career information
CFL status International
Position(s) RB/QB
College Syracuse University
High school John Bartram High School
Career history
As coach
1958 Tip Tops (Jr)
1959 East York Argonaught (Jr)
1960–63 Oakville Black Knights (Jr)
1964–72 Burlington Braves (Jr)
1973–80 Sheridan College
1981–88 McMaster University
As player
1951–54 Hamilton Tiger-Cats
1955–56 Ottawa Rough Riders
Career stats

Bernie Custis is a former American and Canadian football player who went on to a distinguished coaching career. He is known for being the first black professional quarterback in the modern era and first in professional Canadian football, starting for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in 1951.[1][2]

Early life

Custis was born in Washington, DC, and graduated from John Bartram High School in Philadelphia in 1947.[3] He excelled in track in high school.[4]

College playing career

Custis was a star quarterback at Syracuse University in 1948, 1949 and 1950, setting numerous Syracuse records that would last for decades. Custis was recruited by Coach Reaves Baysinger, who was replaced by Ben Schwartzwalder after a 1–8 season. He played the first two seasons of the Coach Schwartzwalder's 25-year tenure at Syracuse. The team went 4–5 in 1949 and 5–5 in 1950.[5][6][7]

Custis was awarded the Syracuse Football team's Most Valuable Player trophy for the 1948 season.[8]

Custis roomed with Al Davis at Syracuse, the future coach and owner of the Oakland Raiders.[4]

Syracuse passing statistics

Year Yards Comp. Att. Pct. TDs Int. Pass Eff.
1948 721 52 131 39.7 3 14 72.1
1949 1,121 70 134 52.2 6 9 123.9
1950 775 74 159 46.5 3 9 82.3
Totals 2617 196 424 46.2 12 32 97.3


Professional playing career

National Football League

He was drafted in the eleventh round of the 1951 NFL draft by the Cleveland Browns, but did not play in the NFL. At that time, there was a "gentlemen's agreement" that limited the number of black players and there had never been a black quarterback in professional football. The Browns told Custis that he could play safety, but he resisted. They then offered to release him, but only if he did not play for another NFL team.[10]

Canadian football

Custis chose to sign with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in the Interprovincial Rugby Football Union (IRFU), a league that would become the Canadian Football League Eastern Division in 1958. Custis played prior to the actual formation of the CFL.

Custis started at quarterback for Hamilton in 1951, becoming the first black player to play quarterback in Canadian professional football. He started every game for Hamilton in 1951, in both the regular season and playoffs, which finished with a 7–5 record. They won their first-round playoff game 24–7 over Toronto in Toronto. They lost in the Eastern finals to Ottawa 9 to 11 in front of a sell-out crowd of over 17,000 at Hamilton Civic Stadium. Custis was named to the IRFU All Star team as a quarterback in 1951.[8]

Despite being an All-Star at quarterback, he was switched to running back in 1952, where he was also a successful player. The 1952 Tiger-Cats had an outstanding regular season, finishing 9–2–1, but lost in the playoff finals to Toronto 7–12.

In 1953, Custis played for Hamilton in their victory in the 41st Grey Cup game, the Canadian pro football championship game, defeating the Winnipeg Blue Bombers 12–6.

Custis finished his professional career with the Ottawa Rough Riders, playing running back in 1955 and 1956.[13]

Coaching career

After the end of his professional career, he stayed in Canada and began a career as a teacher and elementary school principal. At the same time, he coached junior level football, most notably with Oakville Black Knights and Burlington Braves of the Canadian Junior Football League (CJFL). At Burlington, he coached future Canadian Football Hall of Fame player Tony Gabriel.

From 1973 to 1980, he served as a Head Coach at Sheridan College. During his tenure, his record was 86–14, winning six consecutive Eastern College Championships from 1973–78.[14]

In 1981, he accepted the head coach position at McMaster University. In his second year with the Marauders, he improved the team's standing from seventh to first place. Over eight seasons he led the Marauders to a 31–23–1 record. He was named the OUAA Coach of the Year in 1982 and 1984 and was named CIAU Coach of the Year in 1982. He was inducted into the McMaster Athletic Hall of Fame in 2000.[15]

In 1994 he was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame as a "builder" for his contributions to junior and college football in Canada. [16]

Highlights and honors

As a player


As a coach




  2. Note: Fritz Pollard is credited by some as being the first African-American quarterback in pro football. In 1923 Pollard took several direct snaps from the center in an NFL game for the Hammond Pros.
  3. John Bartram High School
  4. 1 2 Bucholtz, Andrew (2011-08-23). "Trailblazing quarterback Bernie Custis deserves more recognition - 55 Yard Line - CFL Blog - Yahoo! Sports". Retrieved 2011-08-28.
  5. "1948 Syracuse Orange Schedule and Results | College Football at". Retrieved 2011-08-28.
  6. "1949 Syracuse Orange Schedule and Results | College Football at". Retrieved 2011-08-28.
  7. "1950 Syracuse Orange Schedule and Results | College Football at". Retrieved 2011-08-28.
  8. 1 2
  9. "Syracuse University Athletics - OFFENSIVE SEASON-BY-SEASON LEADERS". 2011-01-09. Retrieved 2011-08-28.
  10. jpb531 (2011-08-13). "Syracuse QB Bernie Custis Honored For Breaking Color Barrier - Troy Nunes Is An Absolute Magician". Retrieved 2011-08-28.
  11. "Trailblazing quarterback Bernie Custis deserves more recognition". Bernie Curtis.
  13. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on August 26, 2011. Retrieved 2011-08-28.
  14. "Hall of Fame Sheridan College Institute of Technology and Advanced Learning, Oakville, Brampton, Mississauga". Retrieved 2011-08-28.
  15. "McMaster - McMaster Hall of Fame". Retrieved 2011-08-28.
  16. "Canadian Football Hall of Fame and Museum". Bernie Curtis. Archived from the original on August 26, 2011.
  17. 1 2 "Canadian Football Hall of Fame - Bernie Custis". Archived from the original on August 26, 2011. Retrieved 2011-08-28.
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