Canadian Football League was a refuge and proving ground for pioneering black quarterbacks
Warren Moon, Damon Allen, Bernie Custis excelled as QBs
The NFL has undoubtedly been the year of the black quarterback in 2019. Lamar Jackson. Russell Wilson. Patrick Mahomes. And others.
They are the game’s future. But it took generations to get to this point.
The league did not always embrace African Americans the way it does now. In 1933 the “gentleman’s agreement” — a consensus among NFL owners not to hire black players was in effect. In 1946, the Cleveland Rams were in the process of relocating to the Los Angeles Coliseum, and the active local NAACP and black newspapers pressured the franchise to integrate their California football team.
That led the organization to sign Kenny Washington, an All-American from UCLA, who became the first black player to receive an NFL contract.
Even as more and more black men joined the league, they were still treated as less than. White NFL coaches often viewed black quarterbacks with skepticism when it came to intellect, leadership and physicality. When black quarterbacks demonstrated athleticism with tremendous speed, they were moved to positions that required quickness — wide receiver, running back and defensive back.
Black signal-callers recognized their skills were limited in the NFL, but the CFL presented a more attractive and realistic opportunity to showcase their talents.
“Many interconnected factors made Canada more attractive for black QBs: first was the country’s willingness to open its borders to quarterbacks disenfranchised by American racism,” said Karen Flynn, an associate professor of African American studies at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. “The United States had this shameful history of slavery, KKK and Jim Crow. Canada, on the other hand, was more benevolent as a nation — that welcomed fugitive slaves — free blacks and loyalists via the Underground Railroad. No doubt, QBs who opted to play in Canada were somewhat aware of this narrative.”
However, it is a mistake to assume that Canada is without racism. The country is a white settled colony-occupying member of the Commonwealth with a long history of mistreating its original inhabitants. African American players from the United States said they didn’t experience any racism.
“I never dealt with any racism on the field or off the field — from players or fans. It was an amazing experience to feel that my race was no issue with the teams I played on, and the communities I lived in — even to this day,” Hall of Famer Chuck Ealey said.
“That was so refreshing about playing in Canada. The people were so accepting,” Hall of Famer Warren Moon said.
The most famous alumnus quarterback is Moon, the only player inducted into both the Canadian Football Hall of Fame and Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Quarterback controversy was nothing new to Moon
Universities such as Hawaii, Oregon, UCLA, Wyoming, USC, and Arizona recruited him out of Alexander Hamilton High School in California, with the intention of changing his position. Instead, he enrolled at West Los Angeles College to play quarterback. Moon had record-setting seasons, which led him to transfer to the University of Washington.
However, when head coach Don James recruited the young signal-caller, he was truthful about the problematic process that awaited the university’s first black quarterback. They were an unranked football program that did not attract high-caliber athletes — when it came to recruiting. And Washington had not reached a Rose Bowl in 17 years.
“I knew it was going to be tough just by looking at what was available there,” Moon said. “Mainly all of the seniors had left, and we started a lot of freshmen. And the first year the majority of our starters came from junior college. We had to almost start from scratch.”
Fans were still impatient, even as the team progressed. Moon’s 39% completion percentage in year one had risen to 46% the following season. But the Huskies sat at .500 with an 11-11 record after two seasons.
As the university opened the 1977 season with another slow start, fans began calling for Moon’s replacement, but James remained confident in him. Eventually, that confidence turned into a career year for Moon. He completed 57% of his passes for 1,587 yards and 11 touchdowns, with a quarterback rating of 134.9, all career-highs. He was named Pac-8 player of the year.
The 1977 season was the Huskies’ first 10-win season in school history that ended with a 27-20 Rose Bowl upset of No. 2-ranked Michigan. Moon was named MVP after throwing for two touchdowns and rushing in two more. None of this would’ve been possible without the trust of his coach.
“Don James had a huge impact on my career,” Moon said. “He was one of the few coaches willing to take a chance on me. That believed I could play major college football as a quarterback, and had no interest in changing my position.”
Still, NFL scouts weren’t sold on Moon’s ability to play quarterback at that elite level.
They didn’t think Moon was athletic enough, nor did they have much faith in his arm strength, which made general managers and coaches skeptical. Scouts also wondered if Moon’s success was due to the Huskies’ offensive scheme.
“I don’t know if it was they thought I was a system quarterback, but that’s the only system they saw me in, so that’s what they went by,” Moon said. “They never worked me out, to see if I could go from the pocket or drop back and throw. And how silly is it to say I didn’t have the arm strength; that was one of my biggest strengths.
“We were very ball-controlled. Ran a lot of the I formation, but mainly belly options. Then play-action, from me sprinting out and throwing on the run. It’s play-action from the pocket. The quarterback can’t drop back at all.”
Through it all Moon remained confident in his abilities and signed with the CFL’s Edmonton Eskimos in 1978.
“The decision came down to whether I could play quarterback or not,” Moon said. “And most of the research through my agent and different people that knew the mindset of the teams, said they were going to pick me later in the draft and likely change my position. But Canada was willing to pay me like a first or second pick coming out of the CFL draft.”
Playing in another country was not ideal for Moon, especially after coming off an impressive year at Washington. The NFL was the dream since he was a young boy.
“But I went up there [to Canada] with the mindset that I’m going to try and be the best player that I can be, put myself in a position where, if the NFL ever was interested again, I’m going to be ready when I get that opportunity,” Moon said.
As a rookie, Moon became the starting quarterback and helped the Eskimos win their third consecutive Grey Cup. Under his leadership, they claimed the championship from 1978 to 1982, something no other CFL quarterback has accomplished in such a short span.
In his final season, Moon led the league with a 102.1 passer rating and threw for 5,648 yards and 31 touchdowns.
He was named to the Western CFL All-Star Team and won the Schenley Award, an honor created to acknowledge the most outstanding player in the Canadian Rugby Union, the league’s first governing body. That oversaw Canada-wide administration from the 1880s until 1956, when it was replaced by the CFL officially after two years of negotiation.
NFL scouts followed Moon’s career and waited for his contract to expire in 1984. Six NFL teams were gearing up to make him an offer.
“It was the Houston Oilers, Seattle Seahawks, the Oakland Raiders, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, New York Giants and New Orleans Saints. Those are the ones that made the most serious bids for me,” Moon said.
The most appealing options for Moon were Seattle and Houston. He eventually chose the latter because his CFL coach Hugh Campbell, had been hired there as head coach. “The fact that he was there with my previous success with him, along with the team offering me the best financial package, that’s where I ended up going,” Moon said.
The deal was a five-year contract worth $6 million (80% guaranteed), making Moon the highest-paid player in the NFL.
Although Moon had accomplished everything possible in Canada, the world’s most-sought-after quarterback thought about staying because of the atmosphere. He didn’t have to worry about being judged by the color of his skin. What only mattered there was his performance on the field. That’s the way it’s supposed to be, in Moon’s eyes.
“I remember on my 35th birthday, I was playing for the Houston Oilers,” Moon said. “We were in Cleveland, and I threw five touchdown passes that day. They took me out of the game early, and I’m on the sideline. Then all of a sudden, our head of security comes over and about four cops to surround me, because the clock was running down and they said, ‘Warren, you stay close to us, we’re going to walk you off the field, we just had another death threat on your life, so you stick close to them.’ Like, you got to be kidding.”
But the NFL was always the goal as he put together a spectacular career. From 1984 to 2000, Moon played for Houston, Minnesota, Seattle, and Kansas City and cumulatively passed for 49,325 yards and 291 touchdowns.
Moon’s brilliance opened the door
Moon’s success encouraged aspiring black quarterbacks to consider playing in Canada and use it as a route to the NFL.
“The fact that he played up is huge,” Montreal Alouettes quarterback Vernon Adams said. “For him to accomplish so much here, then reach the NFL and set that path up for us, is just awesome. It’s something I look up to as motivation.”
By the summer of 2016, quarterback Adams believed that his professional football career was all but over. This was despite having a good senior year at the University of Oregon by completing 65% of his passes for 2,643 yards and 26 touchdowns, along with posting a passer rating of 179.1.
The 5-foot-11-inch quarterback was overlooked in the 2016 NFL draft. He had been invited to the Seattle Seahawks minicamp but was not signed. Adams went to the NFL’s Washington Redskins team camp but was not signed there, either.
Though the reason for both organizations electing not to sign Adams is unknown, the quarterback felt his opportunity was not fair.
“It seemed like the organizations had their roster already,” Adams said. “If someone’s agent is cool with the general manager, then they are going to get the upper hand. This is business, and everybody knows that side of it. The people who are in this see the commerce side of it, because I went up there and overplayed all the quarterbacks there, in my opinion.”
In May 2016, Adams signed with Montreal. In his fourth season, Adams had a breakout season by throwing for 3,942 yards and 24 touchdowns. The dual-threat quarterback also rushed for 19 touchdowns and 647 yards.
All are career highs. His team finished second in the Eastern Conference, with a 10-8 record.
“He’s a good quarterback. He has a lot of upsides. I think he’s going to be much better next year. But really this is the first time they gave him an opportunity to start,” CFL Hall of Fame quarterback Damon Allen said.
Allen, whose 72,381 passing yards and 394 touchdowns rank second now in CFL history, had an exceptional college career at Cal State Fullerton setting numerous school records. But didn’t get a fair shot in the NFL.
He remembers participating in the 1985 NFL scouting combine in Tempe, Arizona. His brother Marcus Allen had been named the NFL’s Rookie of the Year of the Oakland Raiders. Damon started a friendly conversation with team owner Al Davis, who said jokingly, “I can’t have two Allen brothers on the team.”
Alongside the Raiders, NFL teams had Allen participate in various drills. Despite knowing the quarterback skills he possessed, general managers and owners envisioned him in speed positions. But the Eskimos wanted him to play quarterback. Allen was someone they had been watching since his sophomore year of college and placed him on their “neg list” — which consists of American players each CFL team can retain using exclusive signing rights for each season.
“Canadian teams don’t draft us. You have to be a citizen there, to be available in the CFL draft. They scout you, then say, ‘We want that guy on our list,’ which prevents any other team from claiming the player.”
Allen had been projected to be selected in the seventh round of the upcoming 1985 NFL draft if he was drafted at all, while the Edmonton would pay him as a third-rounder if he were in the CFL draft.
“NFL scouts were asking can you play this position because you’re an outstanding athlete. When you have been playing quarterback since you were 7, and all through college, then they want you to adjust to another position, that doesn’t weigh well for you, even though you probably have the ability to do it.
“I wanted to play quarterback, so I decided to go the Warren Moon route by heading to the CFL, then transition to the NFL,” Allen said.
An NFL career never materialized, but that did not bother Allen because he always played, which was the No. 1 priority. Joining an NFL team to hold a clipboard (which many guys did) did not excite him. He would put together a robust 23-year career with organizations such as the Eskimos, Ottawa Rough Riders, Hamilton Tiger-Cats, Memphis Mad Dogs, and BC Lions.
Allen retired in 2008 with numerous accolades.
One of the most gratifying things about playing in Canada was surpassing his hero, Moon, when breaking his 70,553 passing yards (CFL and NFL combined) during his 22nd season with Toronto.
“I was a sophomore in college and saw him play in the Grey Cup because of the 1982 NFL strike. They started showing CFL games of Edmonton. When I found out that was the team I was going to, it made it convince me even more to sign. They always looked for guys that can run and throw,” Allen said.
Allen sealed his prolific individual achievements with three Grey Cup MVP awards.
His brother, Marcus, was selected for the 2003 NFL’s Hall of Fame after a 17-year career with the Raiders and Chiefs. In 2008, Damon Allen was inducted into the CFL’s Hall of Fame.
“We’re two Hall of Fame brothers just planted differently. Warren Moon inspired me to look at the opportunity of playing quarterback in Canada. It was the only league at the time where you could do it,” Allen said.
The birth of black quarterbacks in the CFL
“As a business, the CFL recognized it could also benefit from having black quarterbacks by providing them the opportunity to play. Of course, the first QBs who were successful also paved the way for those who came later. Equally significant, the overall success of the black QBs disrupts the myth of their capabilities,” said Karen Flynn, associate professor of African-American studies at Illinois.
That was apparent to Bernie Custis, who became the first CFL quarterback in 1951. He was a star quarterback at Syracuse University, where he set numerous records that stood for years. The Cleveland Browns under head coach Paul Brown selected him in the 1951 NFL draft.
Though Custis was talented as a quarterback, the organization planned to move him to safety.
Since the NFL was not ready for black quarterbacks, Custis made a bold move and signed with the CFL’s Hamilton Tiger-Cats in 1951, which was the first year he had played quarterback. After that, he switched positions and was primarily used as running back, as the team defeated the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in the 1953 Grey Cup.
His journey in the CFL lasted five seasons due to a career-ending injury, but progress toward placing more black players in one of the game’s most prestigious positions had been set into motion.
He was inducted into the Canadian Hall of Fame in 1998.
“I had a strong relationship with Bernie. I was one of the quarterbacks on the field with him when they were honoring him in Hamilton,” Allen said. Chuck Ealey added, “Bernie was well-retired by the time I came to Hamilton, but he provided the big-brother-father coaching aspect to me.”
Quarterbacks such as Sandy Stephens from the University of Minnesota and Carroll Williams from Xavier University in Ohio also found success in the CFL. However, it wasn’t until Ealey came onto the scene that a swath of black quarterbacks was signed throughout the league after 1972.
Ealey had always been impressive. After going undefeated in three seasons at both Notre Dame High School and Toledo University, NFL scouts were intrigued but not with the prospect of him throwing the football.
“I had a call from Denver and Kansas City and remembered being asked to come and run a 40-yard dash for time. My thought was, what quarterbacks run a 40 for time. Then I realized they would be looking at me for another position. That was a no for me,” Ealey said.
Ealey’s decision to chase his dream and forgo the NFL was pivotal for his career. He signed with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in 1972 and led the team to 10 straight wins and a first-place finish in the East Division.
He was named the CFL’s Rookie of the Year. Ealey led his team to a last-second 13-10 victory over the Saskatchewan Roughriders in the 60th Grey Cup championship.
He threw for 292 yards and ran for 63 yards. Ealey was named MVP, becoming the first African American quarterback to win the Grey Cup, and as a rookie in CFL history.
It’s not a coincidence that Ealey signed and found success with Hamilton, the team that welcomed Custis into the league in 1951.
“It was an amazing feeling to accomplish that,” Ealey said. His success led CFL teams to become interested in athletic and inventive quarterbacks. After that, black quarterbacks started to choose the CFL over the NFL, where their position would likely change.
Ealey played five seasons between Hamilton, Winnipeg Blue Bombers and Toronto Argonauts. He completed 55% of his passes for 13,326 yards and 82 touchdowns. His career was cut short after he suffered a collapsed lung. Besides winning the Grey Cup his rookie season, he said, the most gratifying thing about his career was encouraging black quarterbacks to play outside of the U.S.
Ealey modestly acknowledges his role and said, “I think I helped. Back in the early ’70s, there were no African American quarterbacks in the U.S. playing at least outside of Pittsburgh. There was no consistency going on. And when I came and helped capture our Grey Cup my first year, it made things a lot simpler to look at.”
“I’m proud of the fact that all these guys are getting a chance to play quarterback and become the face of a franchise, to be first-round draft picks that owners and general managers can look at and say, ‘This is going to be the guy that leads my football team for the next 10, 15 years.’ I’m proud of it because I know I played a small part in making that change in the mindset of owners and general managers to give these guys the opportunities,” Moon said.
Where is the Canadian Football League now?
At a time when black quarterbacks are experiencing a breakout season in the NFL, the CFL still serves a purpose.
Commissioner Randy Ambrosie, who could not be reached for this story, is building what he calls CFL 2.0. His priorities: getting more players in Canada to play, boosting domestic ticket sales and fan engagement and developing an international footprint. The last of these three has received the most attention.
“This global strategy is our forward-looking signature path now, and one that is designed to keep and grow this prominence and continuity as a world leader of gridiron-type football,” said Steve Daniel, the CFL’s head statistician.
While Ambrosie is creating opportunities for international players in Canada, he’s also seeking pathways for Canadian players in foreign markets, especially those not drafted into the CFL. The vision is supposed to take the league into new heights. As it has been instrumental in establishing so many careers for African American players, it is consistently gaining U.S. attention, and now increased distinction around the world.
“The league is as healthy as it’s ever been, as far as the way they’re paying guys, and the TV exposure they’re getting now,” Moon said. “There are CFL games of the week every Friday that get players exposure on ESPN down here. And more opportunities for not only African American quarterbacks but for all players to get a chance to play.”