Raider Greats – Bernie Custis – Barrier Breaker, Al Davis’ Roommate at Syracuse, My Grammar School Principal and a Great Man! 

This is a unique Raider great because (a) he never actually played for the Raiders yet had a strong Raider connection and (b) I had a personal relationship with him and a great story of what this relationship led to. 

Bernie was Al Davis’s roommate at Syracuse. In the history of the Raiders DVD released in 2004 on the second disc you will see an interview with Bernie where he talks about Al not looking at the colour of a person’s skin but rather the content of their character. 

Bernie was born in Philadelphia,Pennsylvania and graduated from John Bartram High School in 1947 and received a scholarship to Syracuse University to play quarterback on their varsity football team. In high school he ran track, played football and basketball. Custis scored 3 TDs in his first high school game! Thanks to for most of this information.

At Syracuse he became the starting QB. This was a huge accomplishment at the time as there was still mass segregation in the United States. Bernie was the FIRST African American QB in NCAA Division 1 history and played from 1948 to 1950 at Syracuse. Custis became the first Syracuse player to record a 1,000-yard passing season, throwing for 1,121 yards in 1949. He finished his three-year college career with 2,617 yards and 12 TD passes.

He was drafted by the Cleveland Browns where he experienced the racism of the time. Paul Brown the Browns coach was not racist but informed Bernie due the racial issues in the country at the time he could not play QB. They offered him a shot to play running back and safety but he refused, was released on the basis he would not sign for another American team and would go to Canada to play. He went to play for the newly formed Hamilton Tiger Cats of the CFL in Canada (in 1950 the Hamilton Tigers and Hamilton had merged, becoming the Tiger Cats). In the 1950s and 1960s the CFL was about on par with the NFL in terms of talent, as believe or not, many CFL teams paid more and offered more opportunities to African American players. 

In 1951 he played every game at QB for the Tiger Cats leading them to a 7-5 record. He became the first African American to play QB in the CFL and by starting 12 games he became the first African American to become a primary starter for a professional football team. In 1952 he was switched to Running Back and in 1953 he was part of the Tiger Cats Grey Cup winning team.

Unfortunately, there are no official stats for Bernie’s 1951 to 1953 seasons as the first season of the modern CFL was considered to be 1954 at which time official stats were finally recorded. In 1954 Bernie was a dual threat on both sides of the ball running 104 times for 472 yards, 4.5 a carry and 4 TDs and caught 37 passes for 399 yards and 4 TDs. He also intercepted 3 passes that year and averaged 28 yards a kick return!! Truly a jack of all trades. He finished his career with the Ottawa Rough Riders before an injury in 1956 ended his football career. 

He went on to be a very successful coach at the junior and college level in Canada. He coached the Burlington Braves to a record of 74 wins and 20 losses. He then coached Sheraton College and won 6 OCAA and Eastern Canadian Titles. He ended his coaching career by coaching by Coaching the University of McMaster in the 1980s. At the time the program had been in ruins for well over a decade and in his second year he took them from 7th place (in a 8 team division) to 1st. He had a 31-23-1 record at his time at McMaster and was coach of the year of the OUAA in 1982 and 1984. Al Davis wanted to hire Bernie, but like John Madden Bernie had a fear of flying and did not want to make the constant flights from Canada to California to work for the Raiders. In 1998 he was inducted into the CFL Hall of Fame.  Bernie Custis Secondary School, a School next to Ivor Wynne Stadium where the Tiger Cats play, was opened and named after him in 2015.

Despite all these accomplishments I will always remember Bernie for the great man he was. As there was not much money in Canadian college football he became a principal in the Ontario education system. He was my principal at Greensville Elementary school from 1982 to 1987. At the time my parents were going through a divorce and I was diagnosed as having a learning disability. Bernie would take him into his office and help me out a great deal during this tough time as a child. During this time period he coached McMaster he would give one of my teacher’s Helen Wilson and myself tickets to McMaster games. 

Later on he went on to work at another school in Dundas, Ontario where my grandmother (my grandparents were blue collar immigrants from Europe) was employed as a janitor. He graciously showed up to her retirement party. 

In 2016 I sent an autographed picture of Bernie to Mark Davis, owner of the Raiders and Al’s son. His assistant got back to me and told me that any raider game I wanted to go to it would be on him. This was 7 years and I don’t know if the offer is still good, but it was very kind and generous! 

Bernie was a great man on the field and a greater man off it. He passed away in 2017 at the age of 88. 

Below are two videos on Bernie’s life and career.