Gridiron Underground makes it to air

In a mirror image of what the film itself portrays, “Gridiron Underground” will get its television broadcast debut in the United States.

The football and social-history documentary about how, from the late 1940s on, African-American players found a home and success as pro players in Canada after being repressed and rejected in the U.S. was made in Canada by Canadians but has found no takers on Canadian TV.

So “Gridiron Underground,” co-produced and narrated by former Hamilton Tiger-Cats running back John Williams Jr., was aired recently on WNED, the Buffalo PBS channel.

“Four years ago when we were trying to get this film going, if I was asked my ultimate dream, it would be for it be shown on PBS,” says “Gridiron Underground” producer Bill Armstrong.

Williams, now working with Indigenous Student Services at McMaster, says: “The film will grow even more now. Right from the start, I didn’t care how much the film made. It was about getting the film into the right hands, getting more kids to see it.”

“Gridiron Underground” is what Armstrong has called “a love letter to Canadians” from black football players who found employment and acceptance in the CFL (which wasn’t called the CFL until 1958) that they could not find in the National Football League.

There is heavy Hamilton content in the 73-minute documentary, which uses Bernie Custis Day at Ivor Wynne Stadium in 2011 as a centre point for broader discussions on inclusion, freedom and institutionalized racism.

Custis, the legendary McMaster and Burlington Braves coach, was the first African-American starting quarterback in any professional league when he stood under centre for the Tiger-Cats for the entire 1951 season and was named the Big Four all-star quarterback.

But the following year he was at halfback, moved there by head coach Carl Voyles who had never coached a black player before he came to Hamilton and hadn’t been supportive of Custis at quarterback. In the documentary, Custis, who died in February at the age of 88, recalls how Voyles called him years later, in tears, apologizing for his treatment of Custis.

It was the fans here who had demanded Custis be the starter and while many coaches of Canadian pro teams were American southerners, packing their own history of exclusionism, it was clear that Canadian fans wanted to see players like Custis and Johnny Bright who, out of fear of the consequences, had refused to become the Philadelphia Eagles’ first black player the same year Custis was blocked in Cleveland.

Custis had been a star at Syracuse, but was barred from the 1950 East-West Shrine Game, then the biggest college all-star gathering in the U.S., when promoters received his picture and realized the quarterback was black. The NFL’s Cleveland Browns wanted him, but not as quarterback, with fabled coach Paul Brown sympathetic that Custis was a player ahead of his socio-political time and suggesting he could place him with the Tiger-Cats as a quarterback. So he came here.

There were a small handful of African-American players already with Canadian teams; Herb Trawick in Montreal, Woody Strode and Bright in Calgary, Uly Curtis in Toronto and Tom Casey in Winnipeg (via the 1949 Hamilton Wildcats).

Custis was the only quarterback in that bunch of pioneers, but would later be followed by the likes of Warren Moon, Chuck Ealey and Damon Allen, who couldn’t originally get opportunities to call signals in the NFL despite astounding college careers. All three appear in the documentary, along with many other African-American players and family members.

The film, taking its title and theme from the Underground Railroad which provided safe passage for American slaves into Canada during the mid-19th century, made its debut in a private screening in Oakville for employees of KPMG, which had invested in the film. It has subsequently been seen at Theatre Aquarius as part of a McMaster celebration, and in several other places. It’s available for sale at gridironunderground.com.

The original film, though, needed “finessing” Armstrong says, and $10,000 from the Canadian Football League provided it. The documentary is now smoother, a bit shorter and much tighter.

Although no Canadian network has expressed interest, John Best of the Bay Observer was instrumental in getting the film on PBS Buffalo, the Elementary Teachers of Toronto, the original “angel” investors in the film, packed a small Toronto theatre for a viewing. There is talk, heavily applauded by Armstrong and Williams, that the film could become part of the curriculum.

“It started out as this little film not too many people knew about, but it’s gained a following through social media and word of mouth,” says Williams, who knew Custis as “Uncle Bernie” and whose father John Sr., also a former Tiger-Cat, is profiled in the documentary.

“The Underground Railroad of the Human Spirit happens to run right through the frozen football fields of Canada.”

Steve Milton

Steve Milton

Steve Milton is a long-time columnist for the Hamilton Spectator and was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame media wing in 2012.
Steve Milton
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Steve Milton
About Steve Milton (111 Articles)
Steve Milton is a long-time columnist for the Hamilton Spectator and was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame media wing in 2012.

20 Comments on Gridiron Underground makes it to air

  1. no Canadian network has expressed interest,
    How sad is that????

    • If PBS can televise it then at least TVO could do it.
      Unless it’s just plain bad.

      • PBS didn’t televise the documentary as that implies its stations nationwide in the US broadcast the documentary. That wasn’t the case. The show aired on a 1 station in Buffalo, NY who happened to be a PBS affiliate.

        Lazy 3down just reprinted an article from 2 weeks ago. Story says “will air” as the original publication date was December 11, 2017. The show already aired on December 15, 2017. 3down did not bother editing the article to reflect the past tense.

        • Drew’s Dirty Beard // December 26, 2017 at 4:44 pm //

          Dude, relax— it’s Christmas and they’re not coming up with much new stuff when folks are distracted away.
          How much do you pay for accessing this site anyways?

          Good article, thanks for posting.

          • I was not complaining about the content. I was pointing out the inconsistent edit.

            Original: So “Gridiron Underground,” co-produced and narrated by former Hamilton Tiger-Cats running back John Williams Jr., will air Friday at 8:30 p.m. on WNED, the Buffalo PBS channel.

            3down:So “Gridiron Underground,” co-produced and narrated by former Hamilton Tiger-Cats running back John Williams Jr., was aired recently on WNED, the Buffalo PBS channel.

            They were fine editing paragraph #3 but ignored paragraph #1. In both stories, the article reads: In a mirror image of what the film itself portrays, “Gridiron Underground” WILL get its television broadcast debut in the United States.

  2. Ditto to the Commodore’s comments. And congrats to Williams and his crew and their supporters in making the documentary and PBS in airing it and to those players and coaches and fans who supported these great athletes, many of whom stayed and made their communities better for their presence.

  3. Dam sad that TSN did not pick this up. Some CFL legends, history with a touch of Canada’s class. How could you not show it?

  4. That was terrific, I would love to see the rest. Do the right thing TSN and get on board.

  5. Geroy Burris // December 26, 2017 at 11:00 am //

    “Custis, the legendary McMaster and Burlington Braves coach, was the first African-American starting quarterback in any professional league when he stood under centre for the Tiger-Cats for the entire 1951 season…”

    Uh, no. Not even close. Frederick Douglass “Fritz” Pollard not only quarterbacked the 1921 Akron Pros of the NFL, but was also the first black head coach in NFL history. That’s 30 YEARS earlier.

    • Geroy Burris // December 26, 2017 at 11:01 am //

      Oh, and after George Taliaferro played quarterback in the AAFC in 1949, he became the second black quarterback in NFL history when he joined the New York Yanks in 1950. So Curtis was 2nd either.

    • Pollard and every other black player was kicked out of the league and no blacks played in the NFL for about 20 years.

  6. Green Pastures // December 26, 2017 at 11:09 am //

    Great article once again Steve.

  7. TSN won’t show it because it doesn’t involve the Leafs or the Raptors.
    Haven’t you figured out that TSN stands for Toronto Sports Network?

  8. Waiting For Gaudaur // December 26, 2017 at 6:31 pm //

    There is one very important thing about Custis and the Browns. Paul Brown didn’t want Custis as a QB because he already had one of the all-time greats in Otto Graham. Graham had just won four straight AAFC championships and the Browns were moving into the NFL. Saying that Custis didn’t play QB for the Browns that year because he was black is like saying that Jimmy Garoppolo didn’t play for the Patriots because he’s Italian. If the situation was different would he have gotten a chance, we’ll never know for sure. Although, Brown did have black players in high school, college and in 1946 with the Browns.

    • Paul brown grew up in the Northern part of Ohio that had a long history of equality. Oberlin college near Cleveland was on of the first to admit women and blacks. All three Generals that clinched the civil war including Grant who was a big proponent of using Black soldiers after he saw them fight at Vicksburg. Sherman of course burned Atlanta. John Brown the abolitionist lived in Akron for a while and of course Lebron and Stephan Curry were both born there.

  9. As a fan of pro football…..wish I could see this. Hope it gets wider distribution or maybe Netflix docs or something……

  10. I watched the documentary a couple of weeks ago when PBS in Buffalo aired it in early December. What theses players had to go through along with other African American athletes was brutal. TSN and other networks should pick this documentary up and as many people should see it. Education never stops and films like this will make a difference. Bernie Custis wasn’t just a football player he was a great man, coach and leader who set the standard.

  11. Leonard Graham // December 27, 2017 at 6:59 pm //

    This is great historic information regarding the
    history of Pro Ball in Canada, plus all the hoops
    the African Americans had to jump through to play
    football. It should be aired. This is a treasure
    trove for all C.F.L. Fans. Bring it on.

  12. i found an 8 minute promo clip on youtube. search for Gridiron Underground.

  13. THe CFL can continue to blaze forward by accepting Quarterbacks with the following stereotype disadvantages. 1. Arab Americans of Lebanese Christian descent. 2. Recovered Addicts. 3. Short Quarterbacks 4. Quarterbacks that have had charges dropped. 5. Rich Quarterbacks. 6. and Heisman Trophy winners. All of which some people think is a reason that they can not or should not play football again.

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