Bernie Custis, the first black starting quarterback in professional football, died on Thursday aged 88, the Canadian Football League said on Thursday.
Custis made history in 1951 when he started a game for the CFL’s Hamilton Tiger-Cats, paving a path for other African American quarterbacks to follow such as Hall of Famer Warren Moon, who played in Canada before going on to star in the National Football League.
“Trailblazers are rightly remembered for being the first,” CFL Commissioner Jeffrey Orridge said in a statement. “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 true gentleman, he brought honor to our game and our league, and provided us with a role model to emulate.”
Custis played for Syracuse University from 1948 to 1950 and was drafted in 1951 by the NFL’s Cleveland Browns, who saw him not as a quarterback but a defensive back.
Determined to play quarterback, Custis signed with Hamilton as a quarterback/running back and helped the Tiger-Cats to a Grey Cup title in 1953.
He finished his career with the Ottawa Rough Riders in 1955.
Custis was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame as a builder in 1994 and was honored with the Commissioner’s Award in 2015.