Before Ernie Davis won the Heisman, earlier black college players were making a mark in the Heisman race

Ernie Davis - Heisman Winner 1961 - Syracuse University

Ernie Davis, the “Elmira Express” was the first black player to win the Heisman Trophy in 1961.

But he certainly wasn’t the first to make a mark in a Heisman race. 

As we salute Black History Month, we take a look at some of the many impressive black college football players who were garnering big voting numbers in the Heisman before Davis eventually broke through and won in 1961.

In fact, a year before Davis won, New Mexico State halfback Pervis Atkins finished ninth in the 1960 Heisman balloting. Atkins, a year earlier in 1959, led the nation in rushing yards (971) and rushing touchdowns (13).

In 1959, Illinois All-American linebacker Bill Burrell finished fourth in the Heisman voting after serving as the Illini’s first black team captain. His fourth-place finish was the highest by a black player before Davis’ win in 1961.

Also in 1959, Northwestern running back Ron Burton finished 10th in the balloting after leading the Wildcats in all-purpose yards for the third year in a row.

Pacific running back Dick Bass was eighth in the 1958 Heisman balloting after leading the nation in rushing with 1,361 yards.

In 1956, Syracuse and future NFL legend Jim Brown finished fifth in the Heisman voting while Ohio State guard Jim Parker was eighth.


Brown was third nationally in rushing (986) despite Syracuse playing only eight games and he co-led the nation in rushing scores (13).

Parker was also a future NFL Hall of Fame who helped the Baltimore Colts to back-to-back NFL championships in 1958 and 1959 and was voted All Pro first-team nine times. Parker also was a key blocker for 1955 Buckeye Heisman winner Howard Cassady.

Iowa lineman and team captain Cal Jones was 10th in the 1955 Heisman balloting and also became the first black player to win the Outland Trophy that year. He sadly died in a plane crash a year later.

Illinois halfback J.C. Caroline finished seventh as a sophomore in the 1953 Heisman balloting after leading the nation in rushing with 1,256 yards. The All-American went on to a 10-year career with the Chicago Bears as a defensive back.

Three black players were represented in the top 10 of Heisman balloting in 1951. Drake running back Johnny Bright was fifth, San Francisco fullback Ollie Matson was ninth and Michigan State tackle Don Coleman was 10th.

Bright was a leading Heisman candidate entering the 1951 season and led the nation in total offense leading up to an Oct. 20 game at Oklahoma A&M. But he suffered severe injuries in that game in Stillwater during a contest in which he was racially targeted. 

He sustained a broken jaw on the game’s first offensive play on a late hit after handing the ball off. He returned to play, even throwing a TD pass in the game, but was later knocked unconscious. 

The brutal injuries he suffered in the game directly led to new NCAA rules that mandated helmets with face guards as well as stricter rules on illegal blocking.

Bright went on to a brilliant career in the CFL, retiring as the league’s all-time leading rusher in 1964.

Drake running back Johnny Bright finished fifth in the 1951 Heisman balloting. Credit: Drake Athletics

As for Matson, he led the nation in rushing in 1951 with 1,566 yards ahead of a long career in the NFL.  

Coleman was the 1951 runner-up for the Outland Trophy and an unanimous All-American. He was the first black player to play at Michigan State and, in 1968, became its first black assistant coach.

The first black player to appear in the Heisman final voting records was Illinois halfback Claude “Buddy” Young, who finished fifth in 1944 as a freshman. 

Young, who stood at just 5-foot-4 and also starred in track as a sprinter, scored 13 touchdowns in 1944, matching Illinois great “Red” Grange’s team record, and totaled 842 yards, averaging 8.9 yards per carry. After a year in the Navy, he returned to Illinois in 1946 to lead it to a Big Ten title and a Rose Bowl win over UCLA.

He joined the American Football Conference in 1947, just one year after it had been integrated, and began a successful nine-year pro football career. 

The first Baltimore Colt to have his number retired, he also became the first African-American executive hired by the NFL in 1964. He worked as Director of Player Relations for the NFL until dying in a car accident in 1983.

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