More than four years ago, I was asked to do a couple of stories for of Forever Young http://foreveryoungnews.com related to the 100th Grey Cup. TSN had commissioned a series of eight documentaries on the Grey Cup and to my delight I was asked to write on the 1972 Cup and specifically one of the heroes of that game, Chuck Ealey. I’ve reworked those stories in honour of Black History Month.
The 1972 Grey Cup held Dec. 3 at Hamilton’s Ivor Wynne Stadium was decided by a last-second field goal. The Hamilton Tiger Cats won an exciting match 13-10 over the Saskatchewan Roughriders. Rookie quarterback Chuck Ealey was the star of that game and that whole season for the Cats.
The game represented much more than the typical east-west Cup contest and this is why: Ealey shouldn’t have been in a position to earn the game’s MVP award, because in a just world he would have been quarterbacking in the National Football League.
Bowl victories and an undefeated college record (35-0) at the University of Toledo weren’t enough to get Ealey drafted by an NFL team. Prior to the draft, his agent sent a “well-thought-out, professional, not harsh” letter to all NFL teams, Ealey recalls.
The essence of the letter went like this:
“The only position I’m interested in playing is quarterback. Thank you for your consideration.”
He wanted to play QB because clearly, that was the position where he excelled. But an Afro-American had no chance to compete for a quarterback position in the NFL of the seventies. There were no takers among NFL general managers.
“There was an overall stigma in the NFL at that time that African Americans were not to be playing quarterback,” recalled Ealey.
And so, Ealey, the quarterback, moved on.
This story isn’t unique, of course.
I talked with Charles Officer who directed the movie Stone Thrower.*
Officer, had considered doing a “bigger picture” that
would have looked at other Afro-American quarterbacks who came up here to play.
Standouts like Warren Moon, Condredge Holloway, Damon Allen and Bernie Custis
all had to come north for their opportunity.
|Charles Officer, Director|
In 1951,Custis, a star quarterback at Syracuse University, was drafted sixth overall by the Cleveland Browns. But the Browns had no intention of letting him play the pivot position so let him go to Hamilton. Custis became the first Afro-American regular starting quarterback in North America. Earning all-star recognition in ’51, he was moved to halfback the next season.
“It’s the same story,” says Officer. “Bernie Custis coming up here and then getting switched over. He had to come here for a reason.”
Officer, an Afro-Canadian actor, writer, director and former semi-pro hockey player, believed that by documenting Ealey’s journey he could tell the bigger story of what was going on in American society in the seventies.
Meanwhile, Jael Richardson, Chuck’s daughter, has been on a journey of her own, recounted in her 2012 book, similarly called The Stone Thrower: A Daughter's Lessons, a Father's Life.** Richardson was born after her father’s football career had ended. As an adult, she would go to Ohio with her Dad.
“When we went back to Toledo, people would start screaming ‘Oh there’s Chuck Ealey’ and ask for autographs,” Jael’s father recalls.
“She’d go, so who are you? What did you do?”
Ealey acknowledges that he “never shared a lot of story of how I got here.”
It is hard today to fully appreciate the barriers Chuck Ealey faced growing up poor in the racially divided city of Portsmouth, Ohio, a typical American small town. Portsmouth was the kind of a place that valued football players but didn’t let black children swim in their public pools. Located on the Ohio River and bordering Kentucky, the city was a significant pass-through point on the route of the Underground Railroad and the opportunity for freedom in Canada for fugitive slaves.
Ealey remembers the prejudices that held him and others back and contrasts that with the freedom “to do things a lot differently” that he found when he arrived in Hamilton.
“There were none of the issues that socially held you back or that seemed to hold you back in the States,” he stated. And so, Ealey was able to continue with his winning ways that memorable rookie season, 1972, in Hamilton, all the way to the Grey Cup win.
Director Officer documents how Ealey, denied the opportunity to play quarterback in his native land, essentially followed that same path that slaves had taken to get to Canada.
As Officer told me of his movie:
“It is a significant African American story that has everything to do about being Canadian.”
*You can find Officer’s movie these days on youtube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xmL1EvtQy3E
**The Stone Thrower - A Daughter's Lessons> A Father's Life. A Memoiris available at https://www.dundurn.com/books/stone-thrower