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Sixty years ago, Ernie Davis left tacklers, racism in the dust

There’s a scene early in the film “The Express” where Ernie Davis and his uncle are gazing intently through a department store display window at a black-and-white television screen. It is the late 1940s, an era when racial segregation reigns in America, and young Ernie is astonished to see a man with mahogany skin as dark as his own wearing a Major League Baseball uniform.

“He plays for the Brooklyn Dodgers?” Ernie asks in disbelief.

“That’s right, boy,” says the uncle he calls “Pops.” “That, there, is Jackie Robinson.”

We then see young Ernie, beaming with pride, as he tacks a photograph of the man who broke baseball’s color barrier to his bedroom wall. A decade later, in a nation on the brink of cataclysmic changes, thousands of young boys — Black and white — would tack photographs of Ernie Davis to their bedroom walls.

The movie, which debuted in 2008, draws parallels between Robinson and Davis and the courage they mustered to overcome racial bigotry. On Dec. 6, 1961, just 14 years after Robinson had broken the color barrier in baseball, Davis bowled over another barrier by becoming the first African-American to win the Heisman Trophy as college football’s most outstanding player. And the significance of that feat wasn’t lost on Floyd Little, the late college and pro football hall-of-fame running back who succeeded Davis and Jim Brown in the Syracuse University backfield.

“I really believe Ernie’s achievement has been kind of underplayed by history,” Little told me several years ago. “Yes, the movie shed a little light on his remarkable life and the racial discrimination that he overcame with great courage and dignity. But I still don’t believe Ernie has gotten his full due as a historical figure. In many ways, he was like Jackie Robinson. He didn’t fight back and get angry the way most of us would have if we had faced what he did. That wasn’t Ernie. Even though that stuff hurt him deeply, he opted to let his actions speak for him. On and off the field.”

Davis, who died of leukemia at age 23 in 1963, will be back in the news Tuesday when the 60th anniversary of his barrier-smashing achievement is celebrated. Along with Brown — who started the tradition — and Little who built upon it, Davis helped make the No. 44 the most famous jersey number in Syracuse and, perhaps, college football history. It was officially retired by the university in 2005, but conversations about it being brought out of moth balls heated up this fall, when another superb Orange running back said he would be honored to trade in his 34 for 44. Sean Tucker, who established a school record for most rushing yards in a season (1,496) has since backed off wanting the number, but the fact someone his age would desire to honor the past that way was refreshing.

A three-sport star at Elmira (N.Y.) Free Academy, Davis burst onto the national scene during his sophomore season at Syracuse in 1959 by guiding the Orangemen to an 11-0 record and the national championship. Despite playing with a severely pulled hamstring, the player known as “The Elmira Express” put an exclamation point on that season in the Cotton Bowl, rushing for 57 yards on eight carries, catching an 87-yard touchdown pass and intercepting a pass in SU’s 23-14 victory over second-ranked Texas.

“The thing that impressed me and most other people even more than his enormous athletic skills was his character,” said Pat Stark, the late University of Rochester head coach who was an assistant on SU’s title team. “Ernie was one of the most modest, kind-hearted, caring individuals I ever met. You couldn’t help but love the guy.”

Two years later, after concluding a career in which he averaged a school-record 6.6 yards-per-carry, Davis was awarded the Heisman in New York City. Shortly after he was handed the distinctive bronze trophy, he received word that President John F. Kennedy, who was in town make a speech, wanted to meet him. Davis and the trophy were immediately whisked away in a limo for a brief meeting with the Commander-in-Chief.

“Imagine that?” the humble Davis told reporters afterward. “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.”

A few months later, Davis received another thrill when he was the first player taken in the National Football League draft. The Cleveland Browns traded All-Pro Bobby Mitchell to the Washington Redskins to acquire the rights to the Syracuse All-American. Art Modell, the Browns owner at the time, out-bid the American Football League’s Buffalo Bills to sign Davis. Modell couldn’t wait to pair the strapping, 6-foot-2, 220-pound Davis in the same backfield with the incomparable Jim Brown.

“The world was Ernie’s oyster,’’ said John Brown, a teammate of Davis’ at Syracuse. “He had everything going for him. Health. Looks. Riches. Youth. Fame. Just about anybody would have traded places with him. His future seemed limitless.”

By the end of the summer of ’62, few would have traded places with him.

While preparing for a college all-star game against the defending NFL champion Green Bay Packers that July in Chicago, Davis developed sores in his mouth and lumps in his neck. Thinking maybe he had the mumps, he checked into an Evanston, Ill., hospital where doctors diagnosed him with acute monocytic leukemia, a fatal blood disorder. Though his chances for survival were slim, Davis refused to feel sorry for himself. In a gesture reminiscent of Lou Gehrig’s “luckiest-man-on-the-face-of-the-earth” speech, Davis penned a piece for The Saturday Evening Post titled, “I’m Not Unlucky.”

At one point, Davis’ leukemia went into remission, and there was talk he might be able to play in a game for Cleveland. But Browns coach Paul Brown said the doctors he spoke to advised against it. Although he never played a down for the team, Davis did get to suit up so he would be able to experience what it was like to have his name announced and walk onto the field at Cleveland’s old Municipal Stadium. It occurred during an exhibition game during the summer of ’62.

“They turned all the lights off, and then they introduced Ernie and they flashed the spotlight on him as he walked through the goal posts,” said John Brown, who spent 10 seasons as an offensive lineman in the NFL and wound up naming his son after Ernie. “Eighty-four thousand people were screaming and clapping their hands and stomping their feet. It felt like an earthquake. As Ernie walked through the goal posts, he had this incredible smile on his face. It was one of those smiles like Magic Johnson has.”

“There wasn’t a dry eye in the stadium,” Modell added.

Roughly eight months later, on May 18, 1963, Davis died. An estimated 10,000 people viewed his body before he was buried in Elmira’s Woodlawn Cemetery not far from the grave of Samuel Clemens, the great American writer better known as Mark Twain. Modell chartered two planes to bring members of his organization to the funeral and announced that the Browns would retire the No. 45 jersey Davis never got to wear in a game.

Six decades later, Davis’ presence can be felt both in his hometown and on the Syracuse University campus. There are statues of him in both places. There’s also a middle school and a dormitory named in his honor. In the football complex near Manley Field House on the SU campus, Davis’ Heisman Trophy is on display. Perhaps no one was more influenced by him than Little, who made up his mind to attend Syracuse instead of West Point the day Davis died.

“No question, I was going to live my life in tribute to him,” said Little, who died last New Year’s Day at age 78 after waging his own courageous battle with cancer. “I was going to honor Ernie by attempting to live a full life, a dedicated life, a life Ernie didn’t get a chance to live.”

Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.


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