Ernie Davis was an American football player, and the first African-American to win the Heisman Trophy. He played for the Syracuse University football team, leading them to a Division 1-A National Football Championship in the 1959 season. He also won MVP honors in the 1960 Cotton Bowl and the 1961 Liberty Bowl. However, Davis was diagnosed with leukemia shortly after being drafted into the National Football League. He died before being able to play at the professional level.
Ernie Davis was born on December 14, 1939 in New Salem, Pennsylvania. His father left the family when Ernie was very young, and was killed in a car accident shortly thereafter. He spent much of his youth living with his grandparents in Uniontown, Pennsylvania, located outside of Pittsburgh At the age of 12 he moved with his mother and stepfather to Elmira, New York.
Davis attended high school at the Elmira Free Academy, where he participated in many sports. Almost immediately, his innate talent was recognized, and he excelled. He was listed as a All-Southern Tier member in football, basketball, and baseball, and won Elmira Player of the Year and All-American honors in his junior and senior years of high school.
As he approached graduation, he received football scholarship offers from over 50 schools, including prestigious programs like UCLA and Notre Dame. This was despite rampant discrimination against black players at the time, especially at universities in the south. Not wanting to move too far away from home, Davis accepted a scholarship at nearby Syracuse University. Part of his decision was also the influence of former SU running back Jim Brown, who actively encouraged Davis to enroll at Syracuse.
The "Elmira Express"
On arrival at Syracuse, Davis was the only African-American player on the squad. He led the junior varsity team to a perfect season, and qualified for the varsity squad for his sophomore year.
At the beginning of the 1959 season Davis as dubbed "The Next Jim Brown", even wearing the same #44 jersey as Brown had worn during his days at Syracuse. During a regular season game against the University of Pittsburgh, Elmira Star-Gazette reported Al Malette to nicknamed him "The Elmira Express" in his coverage of the game, a nickname that stayed with him the rest of his life. The Syracuse team went undefeated, winning the National Championship by beating #2 ranked Texas in the Cotton Bowl. Davis was the MVP of the Cotton Bowl, but when he was informed he would be unable to attend the awards dinner because he was black, the entire Syracuse squad refused to attend the dinner.
While Syracuse did not return to a bowl game in his junior year, Davis was just as successful. He was ranked third among running backs, gathering 877 yards and setting an NCAA record with 7.8 yards per carry. Davis was once again named to the All-American team.
Syracuse faired little better in Davis' senior year, going 7-3 in the 1961 season. However, Davis once again put up great numbers, running for 823 yards, and scored 94 points. His final game for the Orangemen came in the Liberty Bowl, where he ran for 140 yards and and a touchdown in a 15-14 victory. His total stats at Syracuse were 2,386 rushing yards and 220, breaking SU records set by his predecessor Jim Brown.
Davis was a candidate for the Heisman Trophy, competing against Ohio State Fullback Bob Ferguson and Texas Running back Jimmy Saxton. In one of the closest votes in Heisman history, Davis won with 824 points, only 53 more than Bob Ferguson. Davis became the first African-American player to win the award. He is also the only Syracuse University player to ever win the award. While in New York City to receive the trophy, he met president John F. Kennedy
Professional Hopes, and a Tragic End
After being drafted first overall by the Washington Redskins
, the Cleveland Browns
traded for the rights to Davis, hoping to pair him with Hall of Fame
running back Jim Brown
. His contract with the Browns was announced as a three-year no-trade no-cut agreement worth $65,000 with a $15,000 signing bonus, the largest rookie contract to that point in the NFL
. The contract was actually considerably larger than stated, but the full details were not disclosed until 1979. The Buffalo Bills
of the competing AFL
had offered even more money than that, but it is believed that Davis accepted the Brown's offer because the NFL had more prestige and recognition than the upstart AFL.
Because of his success, Elmira held "Elmira Salutes Ernie Davis Day" on February 3, 1962. Guests included New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, Browns owner Art Modell and now teammate Jim Brown. The city gave Davis a new 1962 Pontiac Thunderbird convertible. President Kennedy sent a telegram which was read at the ceremony, saying:
"Seldom has an athlete been more deserving of such a tribute. Your high standards of performance on the field and off the field, reflect the finest qualities of competition, sportsmanship and citizenship. The nation has bestowed upon you its highest awards for your athletic achievements. It's a privilege for me to address you tonight as an outstanding American, and as a worthy example of our youth. I salute you."
While training for the College All-Star game against the defending NFL champion Green Bay Packers that July, Davis woke one morning with swelling in his neck. He was sent to a local hospital, where he was diagnosed with acute monotypic leukemia on July 30, 1962. Originally, doctors told Davis that he had a blood disorder, and didn't tell him the official diagnosis until the following October.
Doctors in Cleveland were able to treat the leukemia to a point of remission, and Davis began thinking about playing football once more. He often attended Browns practices, and said that he felt strong enough to participate. However, trainers for the Browns encouraged coach Paul Brown not to play Davis, due to the potential risks to his health.
Davis wrote an article for the March 30, 1963 edition of the Saturday Evening Post. Titled "I'm Not Unlucky" Davis broke down his life up to that point. He wrote, "I was never in pain and I never felt sick. That was the hardest part." He expressed optimism about his chances to defeat his leukemia, and how he was looking forward to playing for the Browns in the upcoming season.
Less than two months later, on May 18, 1963, Ernie Davis died from his leukemia.
The Cleveland Browns retired #45 in his memory during a ceremony held shortly after his death, even though he had never taken the field for the Browns. Davis was posthumously elected to the National Football Foundation and College Hall of Fame in 1979. His high school alma mater, the Elmira Free Academy, was renamed Ernie Davis Middle School in 1964. A statue of Davis currently stands out in front of the school.
A movie about Davis' life called "The Express" is currently in production.