Ernest "Ernie" Davis: The Elmira Express
Everyone is at least familiar with the name Jim Brown. Most folks are familiar with the name Floyd Little.
Not many are too familiar with the name Ernest Davis, or Ernie, as he was known among his friends.
Davis was born in New Salem, Pennsylvania, Dec. 14, 1939. He spent his early years in the Pittsburgh Coalfield after moving to industrial Uniontown, Pa.
His parents separated just before his father died in an accident, and he was raised by his grandparents until he reached 12 years of age, when he moved with his mother and new stepfather to Elmira, NY.
Davis played in Elmira's Small Fry Football League for the Superior Buicks and was named a Small Fry All-Star in 1952 and 1953. He was also an All-Star basketball player in grade school.
Throughout his high school career at Elmira Free Academy, Davis' talent on the football field began to shine. He was named the Elmira Player of the Year and a high school All-American in both his junior and senior years. He also did well in varsity basketball and baseball while excelling academically.
While many universities were not offering scholarships to black athletes in those days, colleges from around the country watched Davis' high school career closely, and more than 50 offered him scholarships.
During his senior year, one of the schools that came calling on Davis was Syracuse University. Syracuse's All-Star running back Jim Brown had just been signed by the Cleveland Browns of the NFL, leaving the Orangemen without a marquee runner.
At the time, Syracuse head coach Ben Schwarzwalder requested Brown to help recruit the young prospect, asking that he do and say whatever it took to get Davis to commit to Syracuse.
It took very little to get Davis, a huge fan of Jim Brown, to commit to Syracuse, where he played football and gained national fame for three seasons (1959-1961), twice earning first team All-America honors.
As a sophomore in 1959, Davis led Syracuse to the NCAA Division I-A football national championship—the only football championship to this day won by the school—ending an undefeated season with a 23-14 win over the University of Texas in the Cotton Bowl. Davis was voted Most Valuable Player of the 1960 Cotton Bowl and 1961 Liberty Bowl.
In his junior year, Davis set a record of 7.8 yards per carry and was the third leading rusher in the country with 877 yards. He ran for 100 yards or more in six of nine games.
The country was far from a perfect place when Davis was in college. Racism was still very widespread and common in the South during his Cotton Bowl visit. At a banquet following the 1959 game, Davis was told he could accept his award, but was required to leave the segregated facility. Davis refused, and his teammates, mostly white, boycotted the banquet.
In 1961, Davis accomplished another milestone when he became the first black athlete to be awarded the Heisman Trophy following his senior-year season at Syracuse. President John F. Kennedy had followed Davis' career and requested to meet him while he was in New York to receive the trophy.
Davis was selected No. 1 overall in the 1962 NFL draft, becoming the first black football player to be taken first overall.
He was selected by the Washington Redskins, but his rights were then traded to the Cleveland Browns. He was also drafted by the Buffalo Bills of the American Football League.
Davis signed a three-year, $200,000 contract with the Browns in late December 1961 while in San Francisco, Calif., practicing for the East-West Shrine Game. Originally reported at $80,000, the contract consisted of $80,000 for playing football, including a $15,000 signing bonus, $60,000 for ancillary rights, such as image marketing, and $60,000 for offseason employment.
At the time, it was the most lucrative contract for an NFL rookie. However, the Browns' dream of teaming Davis with Jim Brown in the backfield took a tragic turn when Davis was diagnosed with leukemia during preparations for the 1962 College All-Star Game.
Davis never played a down of professional football. He only once appeared before a crowd at Cleveland Stadium, where he ran onto the field during a 1962 preseason game as a spotlight followed him.
Around the time that Davis was recognized by the Cleveland franchise, he had been requested by a newspaper editor to write an article. After having done so, he followed up his article with a letter to the publication's editor, Mr. Tom Martin, of The Saturday Evening Post.
"Yesterday was my 23rd birthday. Compared to some, that doesn't seem like a whole lot of life to talk about. Thing is, I don't know how much more is in front of me. I'm not sure how to end this or even if I want to.
It's funny, most people think my life has been all about football. I've even thought that myself. But football is just a game. What matters, is what you play for.
Sometimes, when the game is close and everything is on the line, that's when you forget the crowd and the noise. That's when it's just you against somebody else, to see who is the better man. That's what I like about the game. Because at that moment, you're friends and you're enemies...and you're brothers."
Ernie Davis died at the age of 23 on May 18, 1963, of acute monocytic leukemia. Ten Thousand people attended his funeral, where a telegram from President Kennedy was read, in which Kennedy said of Davis:
"He was an outstanding young man of great character who served—and, my hope is, will continue to serve—as an inspiration to the young people of this country."
Davis was a member of The Pigskin Club of Washington, D.C., National Intercollegiate All-American Football Players Honor Roll. He was also inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1979.
Although Davis never played a down in the NFL, the Cleveland Browns retired his No. 45 jersey.
On November 12, 2005, Syracuse University retired the No. 44, in recognition of former running backs Jim Brown, Ernie Davis, and Floyd Little, all of whom made their mark in Syracuse football history wearing No. 44.
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