Gridiron Underground

Black American Journeys in Canadian Football

Reviewed by Dave Baxter

Posted March 18, 2020

When Warren Moon was growing up in southern California, his ambition was to become a starting professional football quarterback. He would soon learn that the only way to achieve that goal was to head north to Canada.

In the book Gridiron Underground, Canadian writer and filmmaker James R. Wallen describes how black football players in the United States, including Moon, were often passed up for positions with National Football League teams because of the colour of their skin. Wallen explains in sometimes disturbing detail how black players faced discrimination, assaults, and even death threats while playing football in the United States.

Many of them came to the Canadian Football League for the opportunity to play professional football, including former Hamilton Tiger-Cats quarterback Bernie Custis. While starting at quarterback in a college game in New Jersey in the 1940s, Custis had glass baby bottles hurled at him by people in the crowd. He later said, “Can you imagine? People throwing baby bottles and yelling at me to get off the field.”

As Wallen relates, many of these black football players felt welcomed and embraced by fans and teammates in the CFL. They believed that playing football in Canada allowed them to live out their football dreams with a degree of safety and freedom they couldn’t find in their home country.

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This article originally appeared in the April-May 2020 issue of Canada’s History.

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