Decades before the NFL embraced African-American quarterbacks, Bernie Custis became the first in pro football in 1951 as the starter for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats of the CFL. On Thursday, Custis died at the age of 88.
“Trailblazers are rightly remembered for being the first,” CFL commissioner Jeffrey Orridge said, via the Associated Press. “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. 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 honor to our game and our league, and provided us with a role model to emulate.”
The Browns made Custis the sixth overall pick of the 1951 draft. But Cleveland wanted to make him a safety, and Custis wanted to play quarterback. So he went to Canada.
Custis, who played college football at Syracuse and roomed with Al Davis, became a member of the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 1994.
After his playing career ended, Custis spent 31 years in coaching at various levels.