Comparing the Canadian Football League to the National Football League is a game I don’t often like to play. I prefer to look at the brands of football as two different sports that can be enjoyed on their own, devoid of comparison.
However, following two weeks of hoopla surrounding the Super Bowl and endless stories about the first two black head coaches to lead their teams into the championship game, I was drawn into the comparison game.
In the United States, having a black head coach lead his team to the Super Bowl is a big deal. People stand up and take notice and we are flooded with stories about another barrier disappearing in American society. These are some of the outcomes resulting from the successes of Lovie Smith and Tony Dungy in the football world.
Unfortunately, there is an ugly side to the story and it comes from the certain corporations that tried to capitalize on this momentous occasion by running advertisements during the Super Bowl game (on U.S. television) that exploited the achievements of Smith and Dungy to position their products.
We are fortunate enough, in this instance, to be able to compare the stories of Smith and Dungy with that of Michael ‘Pinball’ Clemons who, two years prior, served as the first black head coach in a CFL championship. Sure, there were stories about his colour and his achievement, but they died down rather quickly during Grey Cup week – Clemons may have been partially responsible for that.
During the press conference with the two head coaches that kicked off Grey Cup week, Clemons deflected the question about his race and suggested that we celebrate the fact that for the first time in CFL history the directors of public relations for each team were female. As the week went on the issue of race became an afterthought.
It would be absurd to think that Canada is racism-free, but the cases of Smith and Dungy compared to Clemons demonstrate a difference in the formative history and attitudes in American and Canadian societies.
In 1980, Willie Wood became the first black head coach in the CFL. It was nine years later when Art Shell became the first black coach in the NFL when he took over a 1-3 Raiders team early in the 1989 season.
Wood was hired by Lew Hayman who was president of the Toronto Argonauts at the time. Hayman also brought Herb Trawick to Canada as a member of the Montreal Alouettes Football Club in 1946, making Trawick the first black player in the CFL.
In 1964, Dr. Tom Casey became the first black player inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame. The former Hamilton Wildcat and Winnipeg Blue Bomber starred as a running back and defensive back from 1949 to 1956. Casey was also a valuable asset to the community as volunteer and was subsequently named Winnipeg’s “Citizen of the Year” in 1956. Three years later another defensive back, Emlen Tunnell of the New York Giants, became the first black player to enter the Pro Football Hall of Fame in August of 1967.
The story list is long of African American players who have sought refuge in the CFL. Warren Moon may be the most famous of the group with five Grey Cup championship rings in six seasons. Moon, of course, went undrafted in the NFL before finding a home with the Edmonton Eskimos. Following his success in Canada, Moon was accepted in the NFL where he excelled and helped topple the elite who believed that there was no place for a black quarterback in professional football.
By the time Doug Williams of the Washington Redskins became the first black quarterback in the history of the Super Bowl in 1988 the CFL had seen the likes of Moon, Damon Allen, Roy Dewalt, Danny Barrett, J.C. Watts, Condredge Holloway and Chuck Ealey suit up in a Grey Cup game.
Before Warren Moon, there were many stories of discrimination south of the border leading to success above the 49th-parallel, including the infamous †Johnny Bright Incident’.
Bright was a standout football player at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. He was having an outstanding season in 1951 and was making a run to become the first black player to win the Heisman Trophy.
His campaign was abruptly put on hold on October 20th in Stillwater, Oklahoma on Lewis Field at Oklahoma A&M. Bright, who was an outstanding quarterback, handed the ball off to his running back on the first play from scrimmage. Wilbanks Smith, a defensive player on Oklahoma A&M made no attempt towards the ball. Instead, Smith directed his path towards Bright and in one motion drilled him in the face with a vicious punch, breaking Bright’s jaw.
Bright played one more game that season and finished fifth in Heisman Trophy voting. The Philadelphia Eagles selected Bright with their first round pick in the ensuing draft, but he declined to play for them. Instead, Bright looked towards Canada and felt he would be treated better north of the border. Bright began his 13-year career with the Calgary Stampeders before moving to the Edmonton Eskimos midway through the 1954 season.
Bright is remembered as one of the best running backs in the history of the CFL and in 1959 he became the first black player to win a professional football MVP award when he was named the CFL’s Most Outstanding Player.
Another player who came north to play football was Ulysses Curtis. He was the first black player to suit up for the Toronto Argonauts. Curtis moved to Toronto from Michigan in the 1950s and became a Canadian citizen not long after. “Being one of the first Americans and blacks was memorable,” he said.
“Toronto gave me friendship and kindness and opportunity. That’s what it did for me and my kids,” he added. “I have no regrets for coming here at 24 and having stayed.”
Curtis is the proud father of three children all of whom remained in Canada. One of his daughters, Carol, is a teacher his other daughter Sylvia is a nurse and his son Warren is a lawyer.
February is Black History Month. It is an annual celebration that began in 1926 as a result of the efforts of Dr. Carter G. Woodson who wanted to bring black history into the mainstream focus.
Black History Month is important for Curtis. “It means a hell of a lot to have people acknowledge the achievements,” he said. “You’d be a cop out artist if you didn’t say ‘I’m proud to be black’.”
In Canada, Black History Month is defined as a time to celebrate the achievements and contributions of Black Canadians to society. Many of the early pioneers who shattered the race barrier in football were not originally Canadian, but some of them chose to spend the remainder of their life in Canada. Others, like Moon, continue to pay homage to Canada through his words every chance he gets.
“I always go back to Edmonton and I want the people up here always to know how much I appreciate the way they treated me and my family when I was in this country,” he said as a guest on our Argos radio broadcast last season.
During Black History Month it is important to remember the role that Canada and the CFL played during the era of discriminatory treatment of black players. Canadians were able to enjoy the talents of these athletes but moreover, Canada has benefited from the contributions of these fine individuals who have chosen to remain a part of our society.
The game of football will not eliminate racism all together, but it can be used as a catalyst for eradicating barriers in our society.
Jaime Stein is the the play-by-play voice of the Toronto Argonauts.