"The Elmira Express"
RB | Senior | Syracuse University
Davis won Syracuse’s first Heisman thanks to a fine all-around season in 1961. He is the first black player to win a Heisman Trophy.
Born in New Salem, Penn., Davis moved to Elmira, New York, when he was 12 and soon revealed himself to be quite an athlete. He played baseball, basketball and football at Elmira Free Academy, earning high school All-American honors in the latter two sports. Davis led the school’s basketball team to 52 consecutive victories, but his first love was football. He was heavily recruited by some of college football’s top programs, but was swayed by NFL great Jim Brown, who convinced Davis that Syracuse, Brown’s alma mater, would be a welcoming place for a young black athlete.
The 6-2, 211-pound Davis rushed for 686 yards and 10 touchdowns as a sophomore, earning the nickname “The Elmira Express” and the first of three All-America selections. Davis scored two touchdowns to help the Orangemen beat Texas, 23-14, in the Cotton Bowl as Syracuse won the national title.
Davis totaled 877 rushing yards on an outstanding 7.8 yards per carry during the 1960 season, setting the stage for a run at the Heisman in 1961. Davis followed up with another 823 rushing yards as a senior and scored 15 touchdowns while leading Syracuse in pass receiving with 16 catches for 157 yards. The Orangmen finished 10th in the polls and Davis won the Heisman as the nation’s top player.
Along the way, Davis broke Jim Brown’s career records in rushing (2,386 yards), all purpose yardage (3,414), scoring (220 points), and touchdowns (35). Davis capped his college career with 140 rushing yards in an MVP performance at the 1961 Liberty Bowl.
After graduating from college, Ernie was drafted first overall by the Cleveland Browns in the 1962 draft. He signed for the (then) astronomical sum of $80,000. Shortly after signing and before he suited up for his first pro game, Ernie was struck down by leukemia. He died on May 18 ,1963, after a sixteen-month battle for survival.
Davis was elected to the National Football Foundation and College Hall of Fame in 1979.