Bernie Custis, first black pro football quarterback, dies aged 88


Bernie Custis, the first black quarterback in professional American football's modern era, died at the age of 88 on Thursday.

The Hamilton Tiger-Cats, the team with which he made history when he started a Canadian Football League game on August 29 in 1951, announced his passing on Twitter.

Custis starred as a quarterback from 1948-50 at Syracuse University, where he roomed with the late Raiders owner Al Davis.

While the Cleveland Browns drafted him number six overall in the 1951 NFL Draft, he walked away from the league because the team told him he would be switched to safety.

The CFL's Tiger-Cats gave him a warm welcome. He started every game in that 1951 season, although he switched to running back the following year.

He helped lead Hamilton to the 1953 Grey Cup. Custis played out the final two years of his career with Ottawa, retiring in 1956.

But Custis is best remembered for his impact as a black quarterback, and his influence on future black QBs in the game.

"Trailblazers are rightly remembered for being the first. Bernie Custis, the first black professional quarterback in the modern era starting with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in 1951, should be revered as well for being one of our best," said CFL commissioner Jeffrey Orridge.

"A world class athlete, he excelled both as a quarterback and a running back. 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. In 2015, I had the privilege of presenting the CFL's Commissioner's Award to Mr. Custis to thank him on behalf of our league and our fans.

"Our thoughts and prayers are with all who loved Bernie. He changed the game by blazing a trail. He also showed us all how to travel the trail with grace and character."

After his retirement, Custis spent more than 30 years as a teacher and coach in Hamilton.

"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."