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The Elmira Express: A Look Back at the Legacy of Ernie Davis

It's been 50 years since Ernie Davis became the first African-American to win the Heisman Trophy. Davis was just honored over the weekend in Syracuse, and we do the honors here in SCD, too.

By Scott Pitoniak

There’s an early scene 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 still 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 the racial bigotry of the times. In 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 is not lost on Floyd Little, the 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,’’ said Little, who now serves as a special assistant to the athletics director at his alma mater. “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, is back in the news this autumn as both his alma mater and the Heisman Trophy committee prepare to commemorate the 50th anniversary of him winning the most prestigious individual award in college sports. Syracuse plans to honor Davis in ceremonies during its game against West Virginia on Oct. 21 in the Carrier Dome, while the Heisman committee will fete him at its annual awards dinner in New York City on Dec. 12.

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, an assistant coach 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 to make a speech, wanted to see him. Davis and the trophy were immediately whisked away in a limo for the 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, 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 that 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. I can see it as if it happened five minutes ago.”

“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 that Davis never got to wear in a game.

A half-century 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.

But he also lives on in the hearts of those who got to know him, including 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 went on to wear the same No. 44 jersey Jim Brown and Davis had helped make famous at Syracuse. “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.”

Award-winning columnist and author Scott Pitoniak’s 14th book – “Color Him Orange: The Jim Boeheim Story” – will be published by Triumph Books in October. You can read more of Scott’s work

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