New book documents black footballers who moved north

Bernie Custis was a standout U.S. college football quarterback when his invitation to the 1951 national all-star game was rescinded by organizers after they discovered he was black. Submitted Image

Troy Shantz

Before Charles Chester “Cookie” Gilchrist became the Sarnia Imperials’ MVP in 1953 he signed a $5,000 contract with the Cleveland Browns of the National Football League.

But Gilchrist never played a game for the Browns because other teams complained he was too young and missed the mandatory four years in university.

But the African-American running back always believed the complaints were racially motivated and the ultimate reason he wound up in an Imperials uniform.

James R. Wallen is a a Sarnia-based author and filmmaker.
Photo courtesy, Bruce Kemp

“Even doing research for this book it was hard to believe some of these stories,” said James Wallen, a Sarnia-based writer who profiles Gilchrist and others in his forthcoming book, Gridiron Underground.

“I almost called the book, ‘Can you Imagine?’”

Gridiron Underground, set for release Jan. 26, follows the stories of African-American football players excluded from professional play in the U.S. who headed north for opportunities in Canada.

Wallen also wrote and directed a 2015 documentary of the same name, a 73-minute film that has aired on CHCH in Canada and PBS in the U.S.

A Toronto Star reviewer said: “It resonates with historical significance and it is a tender portrait of lives that were changed forever by Canada and the CFL.”

One of those was Bernie Custis, a standout quarterback at Syracuse University whose invitation to the 1951 East-West all-star game was rescinded when organizers discovered he was black. He moved to Canada.

“Up until 1933 there were black professional players in the NFL but they started to remove them,” said Wallen, 66.
The Central Collegiate grad said he stumbled across some of the stories while working on another project almost a decade ago. A colleague suggested he turn them into a film.

“He had the title, ‘Gridiron Underground,’ and I said, ‘God I love that title…. I can already conjure up what it is, you know?’”

Over time, black players were slowly welcomed back to the NFL but the prestige position of quarterback was the last bastion to fall, Wallen said.

The book contains more stories than the film and you needn’t be passionate about football to enjoy them, he said.

“I didn’t want to write that kind of book that would only appeal to the hardcore sports fan.”

Wallen said he and his wife moved back to Sarnia last year to escape the hustle of Toronto where he’d developed his career as a writer.

The film can be found at http://www.gridironunderground.com/

The book will be available at https://www.dundurn.com/books/Gridiron-Underground

A local book launch will be held in association with The Book Keeper in February.