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.”
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