Ernie Davis was the first African American to win the renowned Heisman Trophy. During his time at Syracuse, he shattered Jim Brown’s running, scoring, and touchdown records, and he was a key player in the Orange’s national title victory.
Davis seemed to be on his way to a brilliant NFL career, but he died at the early age of 23 from leukemia, despite the fact that he was expected to have an amazing NFL career.
Ernest R. Davis made his professional debut at New Salem, Pennsylvania, on December 14, 1939. When he was a tiny boy, his parents split, and his father died in an accident when he was only two years old. Ernie’s mother, Marie Davis, placed him for adoption with her own parents, Elizabeth and Willie Davis of Uniontown, Pennsylvania. The town, about an hour south of Pittsburgh, was in no better financial shape than the family. When he was younger, Ernie had difficulty speaking clearly. He gradually overcame this hurdle as the number of times he had to speak in front of an audience increased.
Davis moved to Elmira, New York, with his mother and stepfather when he was 12 years old. He attended Elmira Free Academy for his junior and senior years of high school, where he was named to the high school All-American team both years. Ernie’s height of 6’2″ and weight of 215 pounds provided him an edge over the other contestants. Davis was a great basketball and baseball player who contributed to Elmira Free Academy’s 52-game winning streak in basketball. Elmira Free Academy sent Ernie Davis 11 letters in all. Baseball was his least favorite of the three sports in which he regularly played, but he persisted.
Davis’ high school career was keenly monitored by universities around the nation, and he received scholarship offers from more than fifty colleges and universities, including UCLA and Notre Dame. This happened at a period when many colleges and institutions did not provide sports scholarships to black students. However, just 145 kilometers away, Syracuse had a well-known athlete on its roster: Jim Brown, the Orangemen’s star running back. Coach Ben Schwartzwalder’s positive attitude toward African-American players attracted guys like Ernie and others to the team. At a time when many other universities were reluctant to fully integrate their sports teams, Syracuse was one of the more progressive campuses. “I wanted to play in the major leagues,” Davis said, “and a lot of people, including Jim Brown, persuaded me that I’d have greater chances there.” Brown was among them.
Davis, who weighed 205 pounds and was 6 feet 1 inch tall, was dubbed the “next Jim Brown” and wore Brown’s number 44. He averaged seven yards per run during the regular season, collecting 686 yards and scoring 10 touchdowns (eight rushing). He carried the ball nine times for 141 yards versus West Virginia, establishing a new school record for yards gained per carry (15.7) In addition, he scored two touchdowns.
Davis was an active member of the Syracuse-based Sigma Alpha Mu Fraternity. Davis was the organization’s first African-American member, either locally in Syracuse or nationwide. This differentiation holds true for both tiers.
Davis, a sophomore at the time, rushed for 686 yards and contributed to the Syracuse Orangemen’s 11-0 record in 1959. Davis defeated Syracuse 80-73. The Orangemen met the second-ranked University of Texas Longhorns in the Cotton Bowl for the national title on January 1, 1960. Davis strained his hamstring practicing place kicks in the days before up to the game, although the injury had minimal impact on his overall performance. On the third play from scrimmage, the Orangemen utilized a halfback pitch. Gerhard Schwedes took the handoff and passed the ball to Davis down the field. Davis received the ball and ran 87 yards, setting a Cotton Bowl record. Davis later scored a touchdown on a 4 yard throw, converted for 2 points, and intercepted a pass while playing defensive back. Syracuse won the national championship by a score of 23-14.
As a black athlete who participated in various games in the south, Ernie Davis encountered and was a victim of prejudice on several occasions. His most notable accomplishment was being selected the Cotton Bowl Most Valuable Player in 1960. The organizers of the event informed Davis that he may receive his prize at the post-game meal, but that he would have to depart the premises immediately after. Ernie declined to accept the prize, and the rest of his team opted not to attend the event as well.
Ernie Davis made history as a senior at Syracuse by being the first African American player to win the Heisman Trophy. Ernie won the Heisman Trophy with 824 votes, barely beating Ohio State’s Bob Ferguson, who had 771 votes, in the second-closest voting ever. Texas’ Jimmy Saxton finished third. Only four other African-American athletes, including Buddy Young and Jim Brown, had ever finished in the top five of the Heisman Trophy vote before Ernie’s triumph.
In the 1962 NFL Draft, Ernie Davis became the first African American football player to be picked #1 overall. This occurred in the third year of the draft. The Cleveland Browns acquired his rights when he was picked by the Washington Redskins. The Washington Redskins received a first-round draft selection as part of the deal. The Buffalo Bills of the American Football League also selected Davis in the draft.
Davis agreed to terms with the Browns on a three-year deal in late December 1961, while training for the East-West Shrine Game in San Francisco, California. Davis’ lawyer claims that the arrangement, which was first thought to be worth $80,000, comprised the following components: $60,000 for ancillary rights such as image marketing; $60,000 for off-season labor; and $80,000 for playing football. The signing bonus of $15,000 was included in the initial $80,000 amount. At the time, it was the most lucrative deal ever given to a rookie player in the NFL. Davis’ diagnosis of leukemia during the 1962 College All-Star Game put a stop to the Browns’ hopes of forming a potent backfield tandem with Davis and Jim Brown.
In March 1963, while still in remission from his illness, Davis penned an editorial for The Saturday Evening Post in which he said, “Some people feel I have terrible luck.” It does not seem probable to me. And I don’t want to come out as exceptionally daring or out of the usual. I still have moments when I feel sorry for myself and go into a sad state. Nobody can be reduced to a single characteristic.” But, in retrospect, I can’t say I was unlucky. On December 14th, I turned 23. I’ve done more in a few years than most people do in their whole lifetimes.” Davis passed away two months later.
Davis never played in a professional game, and his sole appearance at Cleveland Stadium was during a pre-season game in 1962, when he dashed onto the field with a spotlight behind him. This was his only visit to the stadium. Following his death, the Browns permanently retired his number 45 jersey.