Ernie Davis

For other people named Ernest Davis, see Ernest Davis (disambiguation).
Ernie Davis
No. 44
Position: Halfback
Personal information
Date of birth: (1939-12-14)December 14, 1939
Place of birth: New Salem, Pennsylvania
Date of death: May 18, 1963(1963-05-18) (aged 23)
Place of death: Cleveland, Ohio
Height: 6 ft 2 in (1.88 m)
Weight: 212 lb (96 kg)
Career information
High school: Elmira (NY) Free Academy
College: Syracuse
NFL Draft: 1962 / Round: 1 / Pick: 1
Career history
Career highlights and awards

Ernest "Ernie" Davis (December 14, 1939 May 18, 1963) was an American football halfback who was the first African-American athlete to win the Heisman Trophy.

Davis played college football for Syracuse University before being drafted by the Washington Redskins of the National Football League (NFL) in December 1961, then almost immediately traded to the Cleveland Browns and issued number 45. He was diagnosed with leukemia the following summer and died in 1963 at age 23, without ever playing in a professional game. Davis was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1979. He is the subject of the 2008 Universal Pictures film The Express, based on the non-fiction book Ernie Davis: The Elmira Express, by Robert C. Gallagher.

Early life

Davis was born on December 14, 1939 in New Salem, Pennsylvania. From 14 months of age, Ernie was cared for by his maternal grandparents, Willie and Elizabeth Davis, in Uniontown, Pennsylvania. His father was killed in an accident shortly after Ernie’s birth, and his mother, Avis Marie Davis Fleming, could not raise him alone.[1] At the age of 12, he went to live with his mother and stepfather in Elmira, New York. In Elmira, Davis excelled in baseball, basketball, and football in grade school. He attended Elmira Free Academy, where he earned two All-American honors. At the end of his senior season he was recruited by numerous colleges, and chose to attend Syracuse University after being persuaded by his childhood hero, Jim Brown, a Syracuse alumnus.[2]

College career

Plaque on Ernie Davis' statue, Ernie Davis Middle School, Elmira, New York

Davis played football for coach Ben Schwartzwalder at Syracuse University from 1959 to 1961, and went on to national fame in each of those three seasons, twice winning first-team All-American honors. As a sophomore, Davis led the 1959 Syracuse team to a national championship, capping an 11–0 season with a 23–14 win over the Texas Longhorns in the 1960 Cotton Bowl Classic, where Davis was named Most Valuable Player. That same season, Elmira Star-Gazette sports writer Al Mallette coined the nickname for Davis, the "Elmira Express". In his junior year, 1960, he set a record of 7.8 yards per carry and was the third leading rusher in the country with 877 yards, having rushed for 100 yards in six of nine games. The 1960 Syracuse Orangemen finished with a record of 7–2 and did not play in a post-season bowl game. In Ernie's senior year, the 1961 Orangemen finished with a record of 8–3, closing the season with a 15–14 victory over the Miami Hurricanes in the Liberty Bowl, played at Philadelphia's Franklin Field. College football used limited substitution rules at the time and players played both offense and defense.

Davis found discrimination prevalent in the American South during his Cotton Bowl visit to host city Dallas, Texas. Author Jocelyn Selim writes that at the banquet following the 1960 game, Davis was told he could only accept his award and then would be required to leave the segregated facility. Davis and his black teammates were allowed to finish their meals at the banquet. When dessert was brought, a gentleman quietly approached them and told them they would have to leave when the doors were opened to the public for a dance. The three got up to leave and when the teammates found out, they wanted to leave too, but were told that it would only cause a bigger problem, so they stayed.

A different account of the banquet is given by John Brown. He was Davis' teammate at Syracuse and on the Cleveland Browns, his roommate and a close friend. According to an article in the Houston Chronicle, all the players from the game attended the banquet. Brown recalls that the teams sat on opposite sides of the room. After everyone ate and the trophies were handed out, the three black Syracuse players, including Brown and Davis were asked to leave and were taken to another party in Dallas by local NAACP representatives. One Syracuse player, Gerhard Schwedes, recommended that the whole Syracuse team leave the banquet to show solidarity with their black teammates, but the suggestion was overruled by Syracuse officials. When the Chronicle asked Brown whether the film is a truthful portrayal of his friend, Brown said " ... in short, no."[3]

Davis became the first black athlete to be awarded the Heisman Trophy (the highest individual honor in collegiate football) and he also won the Walter Camp Memorial Trophy[4] following his 1961 senior-year season at Syracuse University. President John F. Kennedy had followed Davis' career and requested to meet him while he was in New York to receive the trophy.[5] Later in 1963, when Elmira chose February 3 to celebrate Davis' achievements, Kennedy sent a telegram, reading:

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.[2]

During his time at Syracuse, Davis wore the same number, 44, as legendary Orangeman Jim Brown, helping to establish a tradition at the school that was acknowledged on November 12, 2005, when the school retired the number in an on-field ceremony. After winning the Heisman Trophy, Ernie Davis talked Floyd Little into doing an about face and play football for Syracuse instead of Notre Dame. Davis also played basketball at Syracuse for one season 1960-1961. Syracuse University, as a way to honor all of the athletes that have worn the number 44, was granted permission by the United States Postal Service to change its zip code to 13244.

While attending Syracuse, Davis was a member of the Sigma Alpha Mu Fraternity, a nationally recognized Jewish fraternity. Davis was the first African-American to become part of the organization not only at the Syracuse chapter, but for the national fraternity as a whole.[6]

Davis was posthumously inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1979.

Davis was a member of The Pigskin Club of Washington, D.C. National Intercollegiate All-American Football Players Honor.

Pro football career

Davis was the number-one pick in the 1962 NFL Draft. Selected by the Washington Redskins,[7] he was traded to the Cleveland Browns. He was also drafted by the Buffalo Bills of the American Football League.[8]

Redskins founder and owner George Preston Marshall was an avowed racist who kept the Redskins entirely white long after the other teams had integrated. He openly admitted that his unwillingness to sign a black player was an effort to appeal to his mostly Southern fan base (they had long been the southernmost team in the league). The signing only came when Interior Secretary Stewart Udall issued an ultimatum to Marshall: sign a black player by the start of the 1962 season, or he would revoke the Redskins' 30-year lease on D.C. Stadium (now Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium). The stadium was a city-owned facility, and the Washington city government has long been legally reckoned as a branch of the federal government (given that the Constitution gives Congress ultimate authority over the capital). Marshall could not bring himself to draft a black player, so he left the decision to general manager and head coach Bill McPeak, who picked Davis. Davis refused to play for the Redskins and demanded a trade.[9] A deal with Cleveland was engineered by Browns coach Paul Brown without the knowledge and consent of the owner Art Modell. This had been standard operating procedure with the Browns from their inception in 1946; Brown served as his own general manager, and had enjoyed a free hand in football matters.[10][11] Davis chose to go to the Cleveland Browns where his classmate John Brown would be his roommate and Jim Brown, whom he admired, was already playing.

Davis signed a three-year, $200,000 contract with the Browns in late December 1961 while he was in San Francisco, California practicing for the East-West Shrine Game.[12] Originally reported at $80,000, the contract, according to Davis's attorney, Tony DeFilippo, 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 off-season employment.[12] It was the most lucrative contract for an NFL rookie up to that time.[12]

The Browns' dream of pairing Davis with Jim Brown took a tragic turn when Davis was diagnosed with leukemia during preparations for the 1962 American Football Coaches All-American Game in Buffalo, New York. The rift between Coach Brown and Modell worsened when Modell brought in doctors who said Davis was well enough to play and Brown still refused to allow it. Although Davis's leukemia was in remission at the time, Brown felt letting him play would hurt team morale. This contributed to Modell's decision to replace Brown before the 1963 season.

Davis was allowed to practice on the field without physical contact and helped Brown draw up game plans but he never played a meaningful down. His only appearance at Cleveland Stadium came during a 1962 pre-season game, in which he ran onto the field as a spotlight followed him. Following his death, the Browns retired his number 45 jersey.[13]


In the summer of 1962, Davis was diagnosed with acute monocytic leukemia and began receiving medical treatment. The disease was incurable and he died in Cleveland Lakeside Hospital May 18, 1963, at the age of 23. Davis went to Johns Hopkins when he was dying, three months after being diagnosed and through chemical treatments experienced a four to five month remission. That was the time that the controversy between Paul Brown and Art Modell took place. Both the House and the Senate of the United States Congress eulogized Davis, and a wake was held at The Neighborhood House in Elmira, New York, where more than 10,000 mourners paid their respects. During the funeral, a message was received from President Kennedy, and was read aloud to all of the people attending the service. Davis is buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in Elmira. His commemorative statue stands in front of the school named in his honor, Ernie Davis Middle School, where he attended as Elmira Free Academy during his high school years. Another statue of Davis stands on the campus of Syracuse University, near the steps of Hendricks Chapel and the Quad where pre-game pep rallies are held. He was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame in the fall of 2008, coinciding with the premiere of The Express and the beginning of construction of Ernie Davis Hall, a Syracuse dormitory.

Ernie Davis' gravestone at Woodlawn Cemetery, Elmira, NY
Statue of Ernie Davis in front of Ernie Davis Middle School, Elmira, NY

The Express

A motion picture biography, The Express, directed by Gary Fleder and based on the non-fiction book The Elmira Express: the Story of Ernie Davis by Robert C. Gallagher, began production in April 2007[14] and was released on October 10, 2008. Rob Brown plays Davis, with Dennis Quaid portraying Davis' Syracuse University coach, Ben Schwartzwalder.

In 2011, rival schools Southside High School (Elmira, New York) and Elmira Free Academy combined their athletic teams, which together were renamed the Elmira Express, named after Ernie Davis.

Further reading


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