Another key player in football’s history passed away last week. Richard O’Hagan looks at the long life and short career of Bernie Custis.
The names of those who played football in the 1950s are now forgotten by many. Even the names of star players of that era, such as Johnny Unitas and Art Donovan, are remembered by few of today’s fans, many of whom know Frank Gifford only as a broadcaster and not one of the star running backs (and defensive backs) of his day.
Even more forgettable are those who played only a bit part in that era, and yet Bernie Custis, who died on February 23 at the age of 88, is one who everyone should remember, because he was – at least technically – the first black quarterback in the NFL. A star player at Syracuse, he was selected sixth overall by the Cleveland Browns in the 1951 Draft.
Not, it must be admitted, that he ever took an NFL field. Upon arrival in Cleveland Custis was promptly informed that he would be playing safety. In those less-enlightened times, the perception in the NFL was that black players were good for the speed positions and heavy lifting ones, but not ones that required a bit of intellect. Or, to put it bluntly, NFL teams unanimously thought that black men couldn’t play quarterback.
Some players were so desperate to play in the NFL – even in those days the money was at least comparable to a regular job, albeit for only a few months a year – that they would go along with this. Custis was made of different stuff and quit the Browns, heading instead for Canada and a job behind center for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.
Custis only played quarterback for one season in Hamilton before switching to running back and leading the team to the Grey Cup. He ended his career in 1956 with the Ottowa Rough Riders and moved into education and coaching, ultimately becoming a school principal.
NB The position of ‘first black quarterback in football’ is a subject of much debate. Certainly others played the position before Custis, but he is believed to be the first man drafted to play the position.