When they awarded Ernest “Ernie” R. Davis the Heisman on November 28, 1961, nobody could imagine that less than two years later he would no longer play football. He would no longer be alive.
Doctor’s identified a powerful form of leukemia coursing through Davis’ body in 1962, but until that time he was on an unprecedented trajectory. He was the first black player to win the Heisman, seven years before OJ Simpson but race mattered far less to Davis than competing.
The way people close to him characterize Davis, his heritage was only another challenge he had rise above in life. Like the rest of his life’s challenges, he simply ignored those things in favor of playing sports, and people learned to love him for that.
He also happened to be a sweet man.
It’s hard to tell Davis’ story without talking about the legendary Jim Brown, Davis’ would-be teammate on the Cleveland Browns. Ernie Davis was making ground on Brown’s accomplishments when doctors diagnosed him with leukemia. Had he survived, he would have been one of the NFL’s greatest players.
New Salem, PA
On December 14, 1939, Marie Davis gave birth to baby Ernie. Little Ernie’s pop died in a car accident before the boy came into the world.
Life would have already have been tough had he not passed. His parents had separated before that, putting Marie in a unique position for post-war America.
Marie Davis was divorced. Even the widows of fallen soldiers would have the support of their spouse’s families in many cases. Raising a boy by herself would have been a challenge, so she made a tough choice. She sent Ernie to live with her parents Willie and Elizabeth Davis, in Uniontown, Pennsylvania.
Little Ernie was barely a year old, fourteen months at the time. Willie and Elizabeth were aging, but they were professional parents, having raised twelve children already.
Ernie grew up playing sports with his uncles, but by age eleven, when his mother remarried, Ernie reunited with his mother and her new husband in Elmira, New York.
It was Davis’ athletic talent that carried him through the transition in New York. It didn’t take him long to figure out how to garner affection from his peers.
Davis was a winner. At school and the local community center, the other kids wanted him on their team, regardless of race. People close to Davis say it wasn’t just that he played well, but that he was a good sport too.
Compared to his peers he was a big kid, but he never used his mass to dominate the other kids. If one of them went down, he was the guy helping the kid up. Davis exuded a kind of excitement and magnetism.
By his freshman year of high school, Davis played junior varsity football, varsity basketball, and baseball. All that spirit and talent from his youth only flourished in high school. In one story, he came off the bench still in a wrist splint from an injury to score 22 points.
His high school record reads like a college student, all-conference three years in a row, he carried the ball 1,314 yards as a halfback and graduated with 138 points, 21 touchdowns, and 12 place kicks.
And that was only his football stats. There isn’t enough blog space to cover all Davis’ statistical data.
There were many schools who wanted Davis, but it was Syracuse University who played the smartest card. They sent their All-American running back, Jim Brown to recruit him.
Brown was the hero to catch, another talented black player, kicking ass and taking names. Syracuse’s coach, Ben Schwartzwalder, was no dummy. With Davis and Brown on his Orangemen roster, he would dominate, and that is exactly what they did.
The Orangemen went undefeated Davis’ first year in school. As it was normal back them, Davis played in most positions because he was versatile. He didn’t fill holes when he moved around. He elevated those positions.
Davis’ sophomore year, against racial tension in Texas, he and the Orangemen won the 1959 Cotton Bowl. When authorities wouldn’t allow Davis and the other black players attend the post-game banquet, the Syracuse team boycotted.
Ernie Davis spent his college career breaking Brown’s records, earning him the Heisman by the end.
The Washington Redskins offered Davis a spot but before the ink dried on the contract, they traded him to the Cleveland Browns, Jim Brown’s team.
“Nothing would have equaled Ernie Davis and Jim Brown,” former Browns owner Art Modell said, according to NFL.com.
Davis would never see the field as a player for the Browns. Doctors diagnosed him with cancer in 1962, and by May 18, 1963, he was gone at age 23.
“Ernie Davis didn’t die at a young age,” said John Brown of the man. “He lived at a young age.”
People close to Ernie said he died the sawed way he lived, with dignity and poise.