June 7, 2017

O’Leary: Bernie Custis’ legacy honoured in many ways

Hamilton Tiger-Cats

The film showing had been over for almost 30 minutes, and the Q&A session appeared to be scaling back to the point where John Williams Jr., one of three men on the stage holding a mic, was putting out a last call for questions.

The only problem, if you want to call it that, was that the last call was answered again and again. The group of people in that theatre in downtown Hamilton weren’t ready for the night to end. They still had questions, still wanted to talk about Bernie Custis just a little bit more. In the 73-minute documentary Gridiron Underground, Custis’ voice carried through the theatre, coolly retelling his story of becoming the first African-American quarterback in football history, back in 1951 with the Tiger-Cats.

It was the first time that Williams, who followed Custis’ and his own father’s footsteps into the CFL, had seen the documentary that he helped make since Custis passed away three months earlier at the age of 88. Williams and film producers Bill Armstrong and James Wallen stood on the stage and answered every question in the room. It felt like they didn’t want the night to end either.

“I think it hit me on a different level a little bit because it was the first time I viewed the film since Bernie passed away. It kind of brought me back,” Williams said, after he went through a lengthy round of handshakes in the lobby from friends and people who’d known Custis and his father, or had seen them play.

“It really brought me back to everything about him, just how warm he was, his whole story. I just hope this story gets out there,” Williams said. “I really hope that the next generation of guys coming up in the CFL at least have an opportunity to hear about this, if not view the film. I think it’s really important.”

Former CFL quarterback Bernie Custis passed away earlier this year but his legacy continues to live on (Hamilton Tiger-Cats)

Most of the people there had probably already seen Gridiron Underground when it was released in 2015. They were at the Dofasco Centre for the Arts on Wednesday night to support and help celebrate Custis in a different way.

McMaster University, where Custis coached from 1981 to 1988, along with many of Custis’ friends and family, are creating the Bernie Custis Football Athletic Award. The award is “A testament to his legacy as an athlete, coach, educator and mentor, and to celebrate his many achievements both on and off of the field,” the school says.

The department of athletics and recreation will award the scholarship (currently at a minimum value of $1000.00 per student) to a member of McMaster’s football team that the school says “demonstrates a dedicated commitment to building a diverse and inclusive community and (seeks) the well-being of others. They must also embody the values that Bernie demonstrated, including perseverance, determination, courage, teamwork, commitment, integrity, justice and citizenship.”

Glen Grunwald, McMaster’s athletic director, said he never had the chance to meet Custis, but was very moved when he went to his memorial service this winter.

One of our former players and one of our members of the hall of fame, Gerry Haggarty, talked to me about what a great guy (Custis) was and how special he was and what a great job he did here with the athletes and coaching,” Grunwald said.

“Gerry and I and Marc Alfano, our associate athletics director, said, ‘Wouldn’t it be super if we could develop a scholarship to help student-athletes like Bernie did throughout his life?’”

“Sport is great because it breaks all barriers. It’s more than just your gender, your race, your socioeconomic background, your sexuality. You’re able to accomplish so many different things.”

John Williams Jr

Grunwald then spoke with Williams, who has a great interest in doing work in diversity, inclusiveness and equality and the plan was set in motion.

“Sport is great because it breaks all barriers,” Williams said. “It’s more than just your gender, your race, your socioeconomic background, your sexuality. You’re able to accomplish so many different things. That was a reason why we wanted to create the scholarship in Bernie’s name.”

The school is seeking out donors and Grunwald hopes that he can get the scholarship total up over the $10,000.00 mark, with it first being awarded in 2018.

“We’ve got a lot of people that are pretty passionate about making sure that it goes to the right people and makes a difference in a young person’s life, starting with Gerry Haggarty and John Williams and our own staff,” Grunwald said. “We’ll do the right thing and hopefully make a difference here.”

In the same way that Custis, Chuck Ealey and Warren Moon broke barriers in the CFL as quarterbacks, Williams looks at Canada today and still sees doors to be opened for others.

“I think when you look at the indigenous athletes in this country, I think that’s a great conversation to have,” he said.

“I think there are so many communities that don’t have that access to sport and I think sport in those communities can play such a vital role when you talk about the self-esteem that it gives these kids. I want to see that be the next barrier broken, with an indigenous athlete; more indigenous athletes in the CFL.

“You look at Truth and Reconciliation (Calls to Action), I think No. 88 is a more intentional development of Aboriginal sports. That’s a perfect opportunity, not just for the CFL but all professional leagues to get more involved in.”

Gridiron Underground can be purchased in the CFL Shop.

You can donate to the Bernie Custis Football Athletic Award here. When asked for the name of the fund on the donations page, type “Bernie Custis” in the box.