As the first African-American to win the Heisman Trophy, Syracuse halfback Ernie Davis earned a place in history. But his courage and dignity make his Heisman win seem like a mere footnote.
Living in Elmira, New York, Davis was a stellar high school athlete who chose to attend Syracuse largely due to his admiration for star halfback Jim Brown. Like Brown, Davis wore #44, starting a Syracuse tradition of great backs wearing this numeral. As a sophomore, he led the Orange to an undefeated season and the school’s only National Championship. The second-team All-America closed the year by being named the MVP of the Cotton Bowl as he scored two touchdowns and a 2-point conversion in a 23-14 victory over Texas.
Davis upped his All-America credentials as a junior to first-team status, as he was third in the nation in rushing. While his rushing rank as a senior fell to number six nationally, he was fourth in scoring, was a unanimous All-America and out-distanced Ohio State’s Bob Ferguson to win the Heisman. That year fourth place went to Minnesota’s Sandy Stephens. This would be the first time that three of the top four vote getters were African-Americans.
“The Elmira Express” was the first selection of the 1962 NFL draft by the Washington Redskins but was immediately traded to the Cleveland Browns. Football fans greatly anticipated the prospect of a backfield pairing of the two former Syracuse stars; Jim Brown and Ernie Davis.
As Davis was preparing to play in the American Football Coaches Association All Star game, he was diagnosed with acute monocystic leukemia. He continued to practice with the Browns but never played a pre-season or regular season contest. The disease appeared to be in remission in the winter of 1963 and he even played with the Browns basketball team. But things took a turn for the worst, and on May, 18, 1963 Davis died. Since his passing .his life has been the subject of a motion picture and he has been memorialized with numerous statues and the naming of schools and buildings in his honor.