Ernie Davis, a Syracuse University running back, became the first Black person to win the “Heisman Trophy” on November 28,1961.
Ernest R. Davis, commonly known as Ernie, was one of the best running backs ever to play college football. He followed the legendary Jim Brown to Syracuse University, where he led the Orangemen to a national championship in 1959, and in 1961 he became the first African American to be awarded the Heisman Trophy, given to the college game’s best player. On the precipice of a promising career with the Cleveland Browns of the National Football League (NFL), Davis was struck with leukemia. He never played in a single NFL game and died on May 18, 1963, at the age of 23. He is remembered as a superior athlete and a young man who lived and died with dignity, grace, and compassion.
Davis was born on December 14, 1939, in New Salem, Pennsylvania, to Marie Davis. His parents were separated, and his father was killed in an auto accident before Davis was born. Young and needing a job, Davis’s mother sent him to live with his maternal grandparents in Uniontown, Pennsylvania, when he was fourteen months old. Willie, a coalminer, and Elizabeth Davis already had twelve children but welcomed their young grandson into their home. Davis spent his early years playing sports with his older uncles.
When he was eleven years old, Davis’s mother remarried and summoned her only child to Elmira, New York, to live with her. For Davis, who was quiet and shy, the transition was tough, but his athletic abilities, already apparent at a young age, helped earn him the respect of the kids at the local community center. Also, even in his youth, others noticed the special quality of Davis’s character that radiated sincerity, enthusiasm, and friendliness. He played tackle on Small Fry football for the Superior Buick team. Although he was big for his age, he never delivered punishing blows and often would simply pick the smaller kids up and wait for the whistle to blow rather than slam them to the ground.
As a freshman at Elmira Free Academy, Ernie joined the junior varsity football team, but broke his wrist in the first game and was out for the rest of the season. However, it did not stop him from playing basketball. Having made the varsity team, Davis, with his wrist still in a splint, came off the bench in his first game to score 22 points. He also played first base and pitched for the baseball team. Although baseball was the weakest of his three sports, several professional scouts kept an eye on him.
In 1955, during his sophomore year, Davis played defensive end on the football team, and they went undefeated on the season and won the conference championship. The following year his coach moved him to halfback, and the Blue Devils won another league title. In 1957, Davis’s senior year, they suffered some losses due to a bout of the Asian flu that weakened the team, but Davis earned all-conference for the third consecutive year. In the thirteen games he played in the halfback position, he carried the ball 179 times for 1,314 yards, averaging 7.4 yards per carry, and he scored a school-record 138 career points on 21 touchdowns and 12 place kicks.
Davis also continued to excel on the basketball court. He led his team to 52 straight wins during his junior and senior years, averaged 18.4 points per game, and set a conference record of 1,065 points. He could jump, rebound, and shoot. If the game was close, his point total would go up; if the Blue Devils had a padded lead, Davis would back off and his point total would fall. It was simply his style to never try to play to the crowds or embarrass an opponent. A career in professional basketball was well within Davis’s reach, but, in the end, football was his first love.
More than thirty colleges and universities, including football superpowers the University of Michigan and Notre Dame, actively sought to add Davis to their football programs. He was also heavily recruited by Syracuse University, another football powerhouse, who sent Jim Brown, their All-American running back and one of the team’s first African Americans players, to convince Davis. Based on Brown’s influence, his own coach’s friendship with Syracuse coach Ben Schwartzwalder, and its close proximity to his home (90 miles), Davis chose Syracuse.
Davis’s freshman team in 1958 went undefeated. At 6-foot, 2-inches and 210 pounds, he was a fast, strong, and smart player. He was a skilled running back, compiling 100-plus yards in eleven games during his college career. He could also return kicks, block, catch passes, and even kick the team’s extra points. In the days when players freely switched between offense and defense, he also was an effective defensive back. Not only did Davis impress those around him with his athletic skills, he also earned their respect for his kind and generous nature. “Ernie was just like a puppy dog, friendly and warm and kind,” Schwartzwalder told Sports Illustrated. “He had that spontaneous goodness about him. He radiated enthusiasm. His enthusiasm rubbed off on the kids. Oh, he’d knock you down, but then he’d run back and pick you up. We never had a kid so thoughtful and polite.”
In 1959 Davis, now a sophomore, rushed for 686 yards and led the Syracuse Orangemen to an 11-0 record. Davis individually outscored Syracuse’s opponents 80-73. On January 1, 1960, the Orangemen faced second-ranked University of Texas in the Cotton Bowl for the national title. While practicing place kicks prior to the game, Davis strained his hamstring and played the game hurt, but it did little to slow him down. On the third play from scrimmage, the Orangemen ran a halfback pitch in which Gerhard Schwedes took the handoff and then flung the ball down the field to Davis who caught the pass and ran for an 87-yard touch-down, setting a Cotton Bowl record. Davis later caught a 4-yard touchdown pass, scored a 2-point conversion, and intercepted a pass while playing defensive back.
Tensions flared during the game when Syracuse players accused the University of Texas players of directing racial slurs at one of their black players, and a bench-clearing brawl broke out just before the end of the first half. Although Texas managed to get on the board in the second half, Syracuse won the game 23-14. Davis was named player of the game, but when he was informed that he would have to leave the banquet after receiving his award and that he and his two black teammates would not be allowed attend the dinner, the entire Syracuse team boycotted the event.
Born on December 14, 1939, in New Salem, PA; died on May 18, 1963, in Cleveland, OH; son of Marie Davis Fleming. Education: Syracuse University, BA, economics, 1962.
Career: Professional football player, 1962-63 (died before playing in first game).
Selected awards: First Team All-American, 1960, 1961; Heisman Trophy, 1961; Sports Magazine Player of the Year, 1961; Walter Camp Trophy (college player of the year), 1961; College Football Hall of Fame, 1979.
During his junior year Davis rushed for 877 yards and was named an All-American. Although his senior year of 1961 was not his best all-round performance, Davis was once again named an All-American. He also had a stellar performance in Syracuse’s 15-14 win over the University of Miami (Florida) in the Liberty Bowl, with 140 total yards and a touchdown, and was named the game’s most valuable player. Over his college career, Davis broke numerous records previously set by Brown, including 2,386 yards rushing, 6.6 yards per carry, 35 touchdowns, and 220 points. At the end of the season he edged out Ohio State halfback Bob Ferguson by 53 votes to become the first African-American player to be awarded the Heisman Trophy, college football’s highest honor.
After graduating from Syracuse with a bachelor’s degree in economics in 1962, Davis prepared to enter the NFL. The Buffalo Bills of the fledging American Football League reportedly offered Davis a three-year contract, but Davis wanted to play in the NFL so he turned down the offer. The Washington Washington Football Team took Davis as the overall number-one pick and then traded him to the Cleveland Browns for the Browns’ running back Bobby Mitchell and their number-one pick. Cleveland gave Davis a three-year contract worth $200,000 (initially reported at $80,000). Jim Brown was already a member of the Cleveland organization, and Browns’ owner Art Modell was looking forward to having the most explosive backfield in the history of the NFL.
Looking back, those who knew Davis first remember seeing a change in him at the Coaches All-Star Game on June 29, 1962. He looked tired and sluggish. Davis blamed it on the scorching heat out on the field, but after the game he continued to complain of fatigue and mentioned to a friend that his gums were bleeding. In late July Davis flew out to Chicago to begin practice for the College All-Stars match-up with the Chicago Bears, and others began to notice his lackluster behavior on the field. On July 28, 1962, Davis felt swelling in his neck and was admitted to Evanston Hospital. It was suspected that he had the mumps or mononucleosis, but the tests brought back much more dire results: Davis had acute monocytic leukemia.
The doctors did not disclose Davis’s condition to him but rather called Modell and broke the news to the team’s owner. Modell immediately traveled to Evanston, where he conferred with doctors and checked Davis out of the hospital. Told he had some type of blood disorder, Davis flew back to Cleveland and was admitted to Marymount Hospital, where Modell insisted the lab work be redone. The results were clear: Davis had less than a year to live.
After undergoing a round of chemotherapy and spending almost two months in and out of hospitals, Davis’s leukemia went into remission, and on October 4, 1962, Davis’s doctor, with Modell present, finally explained the extent of his illness to him. Although Modell’s doctor told Davis he could continue to play football as long as the disease was in remission, the Browns’ head coach Paul Brown refused to allow Davis to suit up on the advice of his own team doctor. It became a point of contention between Modell and Brown, but Davis never complained. He remained hopeful that he could beat the disease and refused any pity offered by others.
While the disease was in remission, Davis reported that he felt fine. He even participated in some exhibition basketball games with some Browns’ players. According to ESPN Classic’s Bob Carter, Davis wrote an article for the Saturday Evening Post in March of 1963, in which he said, “Some people say that I am unlucky. I don’t believe it. And I don’t want to sound as if I am particularly brave or unusual. Sometimes I still get down, and sometimes I feel sorry for myself. Nobody is just one thing all the time. But when I look back I can’t call myself unlucky. My 23rd birthday was December 14. In these years I have had more than most people get in a lifetime.”
Shortly after the article appeared, the leukemia reoccurred, and Davis once again became a regular at the hospital. The Browns paid his salary and all his medical bills. “He used to come in to my office,” recalled Modell, according to Newsline, “and apologize for taking the money. He knew he was dying but he never lost his poise. Knowing him taught me a lot about life. You could not know him without suffering for him which was exactly what he didn’t want you to do.”
On Thursday, May 16, 1963, Davis wrote Coach Brown a note that said, “Going to the hospital for a few days. Don’t tell anybody. See you around.” He then went to Modell’s office to say that he was once again entering the hospital. Although at the time Modell wondered why Davis had not simply called, later he understood that Davis was coming to say goodbye. Davis then checked into the hospital for the last time. On Friday night he fell into a coma. At 2 a.m. on Saturday, May 18, 1963, he coughed once and died.
Thousands turned out to mourn his passing. Nearly thirty Browns players and staff flew in to Elmira for the funeral service. President John F. Kennedy sent a telegram, and more than 10,000 people filed past his coffin in one day. The Browns retired Davis’s number 45, even though he had never played an NFL game. He was elected into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1979. According to ESPN.com, Jim Brown said of his friend: “The way he carried himself, the way he did not drown in his own tears, the way that he did not hang on his sickness, the way that he functioned as a human being under all of those conditions was tremendous courage.
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