Bernie Custis

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Bernie Custis
No. 99
Born:(1928-09-23)September 23, 1928
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S.
Died:February 23, 2017(2017-02-23) (aged 88)
Burlington, Ontario, Canada
Career information
CFL statusAmerican
CollegeSyracuse University
High schoolJohn Bartram High School
Career history
As coach
1958Tip Tops (Jr)
1959East York Argonaught (Jr)
1960–63Oakville Black Knights (Jr)
1964–72Burlington Braves (Jr)
1973–80Sheridan College
1981–88McMaster University
As player
1951–54Hamilton Tiger-Cats
1955–56Ottawa Rough Riders
Career stats

Bernard Eugene Custis (September 23, 1928 – February 23, 2017) was an American and Canadian football player who went on to a distinguished coaching career. He is known for having been 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]

In 2019, Bernie Custis Secondary School officially opened in Hamilton, Ontario. The school is located adjacent to Tim Hortons Field (and formerly Ivor Wynne Stadium), home site of the Tiger-Cats and Bernie's first professional games.[3]

Early life[edit]

Custis was born in Philadelphia in 1928,[4] and graduated from John Bartram High School in Philadelphia in 1947.[5] He excelled in track in high school.[6]

College playing career[edit]

Custis was a star quarterback for the Syracuse Orange football in 1948, 1949 and 1950, setting numerous Syracuse records that would last for decades.[7] 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.[8][9][10][11]

Custis was awarded the Syracuse Football team's Most Valuable Player trophy for the 1948 season.[12]

Custis roomed with Al Davis, the future coach and owner of the Oakland Raiders, at Syracuse.[6]

Syracuse passing statistics[edit]

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 2,617 196 424 46.2 12 32 97.3


Professional playing career[edit]

National Football League[edit]

He was selected in the eleventh round of the 1951 NFL Draft by the Cleveland Browns. As the Browns already had eventual Pro Football Hall of Famer Otto Graham as their starting quarterback at the time, Custis stood no chance of becoming a starting quarterback (the NFL, although it had recently begun accepting black players again, had also not had a black quarterback in three decades), and the Browns offered Custis a chance to play safety instead. When Custis refused, the Browns then offered to release him, on the condition that he would not play for another NFL team.[14]

Canadian football[edit]

Custis chose to sign with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in the Interprovincial Rugby Football Union (IRFU), the league that would form the eastern division of the Canadian Football League in 1958. Custis played during Canadian football's transition to its modern era, which apart from the official founding of the CFL is generally regarded as having been completed by 1954 or 1955.

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 9–11 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.[12]

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.[17]

Coaching career[edit]

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 the 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 to 1978.[18]

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.[19]

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.[17]

Highlights and honors[edit]

As a player[edit]

  • IRFU (Canadian League) All Star 1951 as Quarterback
  • IRFU (Canadian League) All Star 1954 as Running Back
  • 1953 Grey Cup Winners (Canadian Football Championship)
  • Syracuse University Athletic Hall of Fame (1977 Inductee)[17]

As a coach[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Meet Bernie Custis, football's first African-American quarterback". August 12, 2011.
  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. ^ "Hamilton school to be named after Bernie Custis, pro football's 1st black starting QB". CBC News. September 18, 2018. Retrieved April 26, 2019.
  4. ^[permanent dead link]
  5. ^ John Bartram High School
  6. ^ a b Bucholtz, Andrew (August 23, 2011). "Trailblazing quarterback Bernie Custis deserves more recognition - 55 Yard Line - CFL Blog - Yahoo! Sports". Retrieved August 28, 2011.
  7. ^ Croyle, Jonathan (February 12, 2022). "After breaking records at Syracuse University, Bernie Custis becomes first pro Black quarterback". Syracuse Post-Standard. Retrieved June 13, 2023. (subscription required)
  8. ^ "1948 Syracuse Orange Schedule and Results | College Football at". Archived from the original on November 6, 2012. Retrieved August 28, 2011.
  9. ^ "1949 Syracuse Orange Schedule and Results | College Football at". Archived from the original on November 6, 2012. Retrieved August 28, 2011.
  10. ^ "1950 Syracuse Orange Schedule and Results | College Football at". Archived from the original on November 6, 2012. Retrieved August 28, 2011.
  11. ^ "Cornell Gains Big Edge In Pre-Game Vandalism". Press and Sun-Bulletin. Binghamton, New York. October 6, 1950. p. 24. Retrieved December 5, 2020 – via open access.
  12. ^ a b "Syracuse football links: Former Orange QB Bernie Custis honored for breaking down barriers". syracuse. August 12, 2011.
  13. ^ "Syracuse University Athletics - OFFENSIVE SEASON-BY-SEASON LEADERS". January 9, 2011. Archived from the original on December 23, 2009. Retrieved August 28, 2011.
  14. ^ jpb531 (August 13, 2011). "Syracuse QB Bernie Custis Honored For Breaking Color Barrier - Troy Nunes Is An Absolute Magician". Retrieved August 28, 2011.
  15. ^ "Trailblazing quarterback Bernie Custis deserves more recognition". Bernie Curtis.
  16. ^ "Hamilton Tiger-Cats".
  17. ^ a b c d "Bernie Custis". Canadian Football Hall Of Fame. Retrieved 2011-08-28.
  18. ^ "Hall of Fame Sheridan College Institute of Technology and Advanced Learning, Oakville, Brampton, Mississauga". Archived from the original on December 12, 2011. Retrieved August 28, 2011.
  19. ^ "McMaster - McMaster Hall of Fame". Retrieved August 28, 2011.

External links[edit]


  • A Star is born: [1]
  • 2013 Hamilton Sports Hall of Fame Inductee: [2]