Every time you think you've heard all of the great tales of Syracuse University African-American athletes breaking down barriers, you're introduced to another one that makes it all that much more impressive.
We all know the story of Ernie Davis, the first African-American Heisman Trophy winner.
And I don't need to tell you anything about Jim Brown.
Before both of them came Avatus Stone, who racked up an impressive career with the Orange and would have been at the forefront of a landmark civil rights moment in the 1952 Orange Bowl had he not been injured. SU's opponent, Alabama, was under strict orders not to take the field if the opposing team fielded an African-American player. Stone was out for the season with torn ligaments, thus preventing the showdown.
And before Stone there was Wilmeth Sidat-Singh, who weathered racism from opponents and SU to become one of the best athletes to ever wear orange.
This weekend, another Syracuse-related, African-American trendsetter will be honored. Bernie Custis, who played for SU in the late 40’s and early 50's, will be honored by the Hamilton Tiger-Cats of the CFL at half-time during Saturday night’s game against the arch-rival Toronto Argonauts.
What's he being honored for? Oh, you know, just being the the first African-American quarterback to earn the job of regular starter for a professional football team anywhere.
Custis was Syracuse’s MVP and scored four touchdowns in his final game in 1951. He enjoyed his time at SU but remembered that "some southern schools that wouldn’t put Syracuse on their schedule because of me." After a solid college career, Custis was picked in the 11th round of the 1951 NFL Draft by the Cleveland Browns. He assumed, given how well he played quarterback in college, that he would get a chance to play the position in Cleveland as well. Alas...
"When I got to their training camp, I realized I was not going to be given a chance at quarterback."
After a discussion with Browns coach and owner, Custis was told that he would play safety. When Custis relented, Brown offered to release his draft pick, but only if he went and played in Canada and not with another NFL squad.
Enter the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, who gave Custis the opportunity he was looking for. All he did with it was lead Hamilton to a winning record in his first season, be named to the All-Star team and eventually lead Hamilton to a Grey Cup Championship in 1953. He would play until 1955 when his career was cut short by injuries. In 1998, he was inducted in the Canadian Football Hall of Fame.
Davis has since offered his old friend "countless jobs, but I have an issue with flying and haven’t been on a plane in 41 years," Custis laughs.
Custis went on to have a great post-football career as a teacher and football coach, eventually returning to the CFL. He also still remains in the top ten all-time in pass attempts and yards per season in the Syracuse record books.