Pioneering QB Chuck Ealey doesn’t look back
First black quarterback to win CFL title says racial climate very different in Canada than in United States
“I came to Canada to live the American Dream.”
Those were the first words out of the mouth of Chuck Ealey. The former University of Toledo star quarterbacked the Hamilton Tiger-Cats to the Grey Cup championship in his rookie year in the Canadian Football League some 44 years ago.
Success was nothing new for Ealey. He led the Toledo Rockets on a 35-game winning streak in his three years at the helm of the Rockets – an NCAA record for starting quarterbacks that still stands.
A mobile, athletic quarterback in the same mold of a Russell Wilson, Ealey led Toledo to three straight Top 20 finishes, three consecutive Mid-American Conference titles, and three victories in the Tangerine Bowl (now known as the Citrus Bowl).
Ealey was voted by The Football News as a first-team All-American as quarterback, second-team by United Press International and third-team by the Associated Press. He finished eighth in the polling for the 1971 Heisman Trophy. After his final season, Ealey attracted the attention of handful of NFL scouts, including the New York Jets. But none of them were interested in seeing him throw the ball.
“They wanted me to run the 40 [yard dash],” the now 66-year-old Ealey recalled. “I kind of laughed and said, ‘How many quarterbacks have to run the 40? Quarterbacks don’t run the 40.’ ”
A few weeks before the Feb. 1, 1972, draft, Ealey and his agent sent a letter to the NFL informing all of the teams that he would only agree to be drafted if he could be given an opportunity to play his position. Some 23 years later, Florida State’s Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Charlie Ward would adopt a similar stance.
“You know what, if you’re gonna draft me, draft me as a quarterback,” Ealey recalled. “It was OK for me not to be drafted, if it was not as a quarterback.
“I didn’t want to play defensive back or wide receiver. All I wanted to do was play quarterback. At the time in the NFL, there was only Joe Gilliam with Pittsburgh and they wouldn’t let him play. So, I knew what had happened to him could happen to me.”
As a QB, he was ignored in NFL Draft
The NFL draft was held over two days at New York City’s Essex House Hotel. The 26 teams made 442 selections over 17 rounds. Ealey, like Charlie Ward two decades later, was not drafted.
Standing 6-feet-1 and weighing 195 pounds, Ealey was considered slightly undersized to play quarterback in the NFL, even though white quarterbacks about the same size, like Hall of Famer Fran Tarkenton, were starring in the league.
“When I came out of Toledo,” said Ealey, “the NFL was looking at 6-3 pocket passers. I was mobile and athletic. That was something that somebody could use against me. They built a reason against black quarterbacks to move them to another position.”
This was just three years after Marlin Briscoe became the first African-American to become a starting quarterback, south of the Canadian border, with the Denver Broncos of the American Football League.
Even though he was named the AFL’s rookie of the year, Briscoe wasn’t even allowed to compete for the job before the next season, was subsequently traded to the Buffalo Bills and spent the rest of his career as a wide receiver in the NFL.
Ealey said he never focused specifically on Briscoe’s fate. Decades before Ealey, a succession of black college quarterbacks had been drafted into the NFL, only to be switched to other positions and never given the opportunity to line up behind center.
“[Briscoe] was never an issue for me,” Ealey added. “I knew he had gone in there. He was not a factor. It was just a sign of the times.”
In the weeks following the draft, when NFL teams sign college free agents to fill out their rosters, the Toledo star quarterback attracted little interest. Kansas City and Denver called Ealey, but he said neither club offered him a tryout as a quarterback.
“I wasn’t bitter,” said Ealey, who graduated the following May with a bachelor’s degree in business economics with a specialization in transportation. “I wasn’t worried about it. I wasn’t focused on playing pro ball when I was in college. It wasn’t part of why I went to college for me to go to the NFL.”
Ealey, who had always played quarterback, was determined to either play his position or walk away altogether from a career in pro football.
“I was more practical to the reality that was taking place,” said Ealey. “I really wasn’t focused on playing in the NFL. I knew the NFL wasn’t going to do anything about it.”
Soon after, Ealey’s agent fielded an offer from the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, one of the charter franchises of the Canadian Football League.
Shortly after graduation day in Toledo, the Portsmouth, Ohio, native retraced one of the routes of Harriet Tubman’s Underground Railroad. He left his hometown and traveled north to Detroit, crossing over the Ambassador Bridge that spans the Detroit River across the border into Canada, then on to Hamilton, where the freedom to play quarterback awaited.
Ealey, still adjusting to the larger and wider dimensions of Canadian football, along with 12-man squads and multiple backs in motion, started the 1972 season as the backup to veteran Wally Gabler. He had success in playing in relief in the Tiger-Cats third and fourth regular season games, both losses – a new experience for Ealey, who had never lost a game in high school or college.
Named the starter in week four by Tiger-Cats head coach Jerry Williams, Ealey led Hamilton to an 11-3 record and the CFL’s East Division title, displaying a rifle arm and elusive open field running.
Ealey: No racial troubles for him in CFL
Ealey said there was no controversy in Hamilton when he took over as starting quarterback as there certainly would have been in the NFL at that time.
“There was never an issue that it would become a black-white issue,” Ealey pointed out, “because then it was not a segregated mindset. There was no one who put you in the mindset of being a black quarterback. It was like college, it was liberating. I was immediately accepted by the team. There was no controversy. Nobody brought [race] up. That’s a reflection of the country.”
Unlike the NFL, African-American quarterbacks had been starting for CFL clubs for more than 20 years before Ealey arrived in Hamilton. Management, players, fans and the media in Canada had accepted black quarterbacks as part of the game.
“For the most part,” said Ealey, “the message when I came in in ’72 is there was no reason why I couldn’t play the position as a black man. There have been so many black quarterbacks up here that, sometimes, six quarterbacks out of the nine teams have been starting at one time. From ’72 on, the opportunity for blacks to play quarterback was still there.”
Ealey capped perhaps the greatest rookie season in pro football history in the postseason, leading to the Tiger-Cats to a last-second 13-10 victory over the Saskatchewan Roughriders in the 60th Grey Cup championship game before the hometown fans at Hamilton’s Ivor Wynne Stadium. Passing for 292 yards and a touchdown and running for 63 more, Ealey was named the game’s most valuable player.
Ealey became the first black man to quarterback his team to a professional football championship (15 seasons before Doug Williams led Washington to the Super Bowl XXII), Ealey was named the CFL rookie of the year and selected to the league’s all-star team.
Ealey played just six more seasons in the CFL, never duplicating the success of his rookie season. Ealey never got the chance to display his skills as a professional back home.
“They never approached me at all,” he said. “They were having all that talk about the World Football League and all that stuff, but never the NFL.”
On the other hand, he seems content with the way the fates played out.
“I never have worried about it from the time I left university to the time I came in Canada, even in a dream.”
But later on, the competitor that remains within Ealey emerges, confident that he would have been good enough to play in the NFL if he’d been given the chance.
“I think I could have,” he said. “I would have had to go someplace and have had somebody who could coach me in the right system. I think if that would have happened nowadays, I’d be given a shot. But that’s the way the society was. Of course, they would.”
Ealey said he’s happy for the success other African-American quarterbacks enjoyed in both the CFL and the NFL.
“I feel just elated with what they’ve been able to do,” he added. “It was too late for the guys of my times, like Jimmy Jones, Condredge Holloway and others before me to be given a shot. I don’t think about it, until some folks bring it up. If we had a Cam Newton to come up here, or five or six, it would have made a difference. The discussion seems to come up.”
Life in Canada vs. the U.S. was so different
Ealey remains a legend in Canadian football. But his on-field success was also matched by the social acceptance off the field by a much more racially tolerant society than the one in which he was raised.
An investment banker for nearly 40 years, Ealey is a dual citizen, living with his family in Brampton, Ontario. Although he frequently visits family in Ohio, he prefers living in Canada to the States.
From his earliest days in Hamilton, Ealey and his family lived in mostly white neighborhoods. He said neighbors frequently invited him and his family into their homes for dinners. Ealey said he never heard a racial epithet hurled at him either on or off the field in a few years short of a half-century of living in Canada.
Coming of age during the turbulent 1960s in America, Ealey grew up in the projects in Portsmouth’s predominantly black North End. Sports and recreation provided a way out. He honed his passing skills by throwing large stones at boxcars traveling along on the nearby railroad tracks, targeting letters on their sides. Ealey said the practice translated easily to the gridiron, make it easy to lead receivers with his throws.
Ealey was a star football and basketball player at Notre Dame High School. He was starting quarterback in his junior and senior years, and his Titans never lost a game, and were selected as the first Ohio High School Athletic Association state football champions.
“When I was in high school, they told me that they had no doubts about me playing in college.
Despite his a stellar prep career on the gridiron, Ealey attracted scant attention from college recruiters, with one very notable exception.
“Bo Schembechler was the coach at Miami of Ohio, the year before he went to coach at Michigan,” Ealey recounted. “He came to recruit me. He wanted me to come in as a defensive back and a third-string quarterback, but he only offered me a partial scholarship. The University of Toledo gave me a full scholarship as a quarterback. I was determined to play the position. I just wanted them to give me a shot. I just said, ‘Give the guy, whoever it is, a shot.’ ”
The recruiter from Toledo came to see Ealey at Portsmouth’s Notre Dame High School too late in the year to scout him on the gridiron. Instead, he saw Ealey playing basketball. Ealey signed his national letter of intent with Toledo on the basketball court at Notre Dame – shortly after sinking a last-second jump shot to win a game.
Going to school in Toledo brought Ealey closer to the growing political protests of the era, especially the anti-Vietnam War and Black Power movements. Ealey said he largely escaped the racial tensions four years later when he went across the border to play in Canada, where he raised his family. He added that his son, Damon, who left Canada to play football at the University of Toledo some 20 years later, did not.
“My son saw the differences in the society,” said Ealey. “He said he couldn’t stay there because the social element was so different. In the States, you’re forced to choose between black and white. You have to take sides. He didn’t have to do that in Canada, because he had white friends and black friends, Indian, Chinese and Italian friends that he played with. In Canada, everybody’s just here. It’s not a perfect thing, but you just don’t think a lot about race.”
Now more than 40 years removed from living in the United States, albeit across the border, Ealey admitted to an almost out-of-body perspective in looking at his native land, which, to him, is a different country, a different society, in geographic, spiritual and even emotional terms.
“As a society and social environment, we [the United States] still seem to be behind,” said Ealey, who has watched with amazement at the racially charged U.S. presidential campaign from a distance.
“I can’t see them [politicians] talking in Canada like that [Trump], not in business, corporations or sports. There’s no reason to have this in Canada. Why is that in the U.S.?”
Looking back at his career, Ealey said he was never asked about being a black quarterback during his playing days.
“The only time we talk about black quarterbacks is when someone calls from the U.S.,” added Ealey. “We never talk about it here.”
Ealey said he’s unaware of an informal fraternity among former African-American CFL quarterbacks as there is among NFL signal-callers – even though they are far more numerous.
Instead, he said, former players tend to socialize primarily around the close-knit alumni associations of the nine CFL clubs.
“The guys up here don’t treat it like that; once you cross that border, it’s not a black-white issue,” Ealey said. “It just doesn’t come out that way. Everybody blends together. We hang out with each other as alumni. I hang out with the Tiger-Cats or the Argonauts alumni. It’s not a black thing.”