Ernie Davis, the “Elmira Express” who was the first black player to win the Heisman Trophy in 1961, came from humble beginnings, but persevered into prominence and the history books.
As we reflect on Davis during Black History Month, his life — cut too short at 23 — had an impact that much beyond the gridiron.
Born Dec. 14, 1939 in New Salem, Penn., he grew up poor in the coal-mining town of Uniontown, some 50 miles outside of Pittsburgh, raised by his mother, stepfather and grandmother.
The family moved to Elmira when he was 12 and soon after, his athletic talents started to blossom. He played baseball, basketball and football at Elmira Free Academy, earning high school All-American honors in the latter two sports, though some thought baseball might be his best sport.
Davis led the school’s basketball team to 52 consecutive victories, but his first love was football.
Recruited by many of the top programs in the country — over 30 — Davis chose to attend Syracuse thanks in no small part to the great Jim Brown, who strongly encouraged the young running back to attend his alma mater.
His influence started to build not long into his sophomore season as he rushed for 686 yards and 10 scores, earning the nickname “The Elmira Express” — penned by a local Elmira sportswriter — after the Orangemen’s win over Pittsburgh.
Davis — wearing Jim Brown’s No. 44 — earned the first of his three All-American honors as a 1959 sophomore and scored two touchdowns — one a still-standing game-record 87-yard reception — in Syracuse’s 23-14 win over Texas in the Cotton Bowl that clinched a national title.
In the win, Davis — one of three African-American player on the Syracuse team — also scored a pair of two-point conversions and intercepted a pass that led to another score, earning game MVP honors.
As a 1960 junior, Davis totaled 877 rushing yards with a whopping 7.8 yards per carry, 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 receiving with 16 catches for 157 yards.
The Orangemen finished 10th in the polls and Davis won the Heisman as the nation’s top player by a relatively slim margin over Ohio State fullback Bob Ferguson to become the become the first black player to win the Heisman. Davis also won the Walter Camp Trophy that year.
Davis received his Heisman on Dec. 6, 1961, at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. Among the people who wanted to shake his hand that day was President John F. Kennedy. After meeting in front of the press, the two shared a limo ride along with the Heisman Trophy. By Davis’ own account, the President asked Davis about his future plans.
A fateful question for both, sadly.
“I know for a fact it was the highlight of his life at that time,” said Davis’s teammate John Brown about the handshake in an article at Syracuse.com. He would often tell his friends: “Come shake the hand of the man who shook the hand!”
Davis echoed that sentiment to reporters, saying: “Imagine that? The President of the United States wanting to meet me. I got to shake hands with him. That was almost as big a thrill as winning the Heisman.”
Davis was drafted first overall by Washington in the 1962 draft — which actually took place two days before he met Kennedy.
But before Davis could become the Washington’s first black player — something not lost on Kennedy – he was traded to the Cleveland Browns.
Davis signed for the (then) huge sum of $80,000 on a three-year contract. His college teammate John Brown was drafted by the Browns as well, which also featured star back and fellow Orangemen alum Jim Brown.
Before the trio could join forces in Cleveland and before Davis ever suited up for his first pro game, he was diagnosed with leukemia in 1962. While he did practice with the Browns, and hoped to play in 1963, the disease came back from remission and took hold that year. He died on May 18, 1963, at the age of 23 after a 16-month battle.
Over 10,000 people attended his funeral and a message from President Kennedy was read. Though Ernie never played a game for the Cleveland Browns, they retired his number 45, worn only in practice.
Two months before his passing, while he still hoped for a recovery, Davis wrote this in an article in the The Saturday Evening Post:
“Some people say 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 Dec. 14. In these years I have had more than most people get in a lifetime.”
Davis remains a Syracuse legend. When he finished playing, he had broken Jim Brown’s Syracuse 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.
There is a statue of Davis on the Syracuse campus, as well as one in Elmira.
In a book on Davis, his high school coach Marty Harrigan said this upon the humble star back: “Everyone knew Ernie’s athletic greatness, but few realized what a great human he was. His concern for his fellow man, and his affection for children, was sincere.”
That sums it up well.