PBS in Buffalo has confirmed that it will be airing Gridiron Underground—a Canadian documentary that explores the migration of talented African American football players to Canada in the 1950’s. The airing will take place this December with the date still to be determined. The 71 minute documentary was produced by Bill Armstrong of Toronto’s Strongwall Productions. The documentary is filled with interviews with African American CFL stars of the past, starting with the late Bernie Custis who became the first black quarterback in pro football with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in 1951. Custis was drafted by the Cleveland Browns out of Syracuse, but wasn’t given the opportunity to try out at quarterback. Browns coach Paul Brown advised him to go to Canada and he did, arriving by train in Hamilton at 2 AM.
Other stories told include those of quarterbacks such as Chuck Ealey, Warren Moon and Henry Burris. Also featured are running back Johnny Bright, defensive lineman Bruce Smith, defensive back Ed Jones, defensive player Rollie Miles and kick returner Henry (Gizmo) Williams, with cameos by Michael (Pinball) Clemons and Damon Allen. The film is narrated by John Williams Jr. who played two seasons with the TiCats. One of the players profiled is William’s father defensive back John Williams Sr., who played for the TiCats for 5 years. Williams Senior and Junior are the only African-American father-son team to have their names engraved on the Grey Cup.
The documentary features fascinating interviews with the players who candidly discuss the racism they faced in the United States and how they received a warmer, if not completely warm reception in Canada. It is actually quite amusing to hear these athletes and their spouses talk about the culture…and climate shock they experienced when they arrived in Canadian cities like Edmonton and Winnipeg. In addition to the interviews, the film has a wealth of vintage CFL footage and some terrific video of several Canadian cites as they looked in the 1950’s and 1960’s.
Gridiron Underground is an important social document that positively portrays Canada as a more welcoming place for African-American athletes, but does not ignore the fact that subtler forms of racism existed here too.