"The way he carried himself, the way he did not drown in his own tears, the way that he did not hang on his sickness, the way that he functioned as a human being under all of those conditions was tremendous courage," says Jim Brown about Ernie Davis, the first African-American Heisman Trophy winner who died at 23 of leukemia.
Jan. 1, 1960 - Four days before top-ranked, undefeated and untied Syracuse met No. 2 Texas in the Cotton Bowl, No. 44 pulled a hamstring. Five minutes before game-time, Syracuse coach Ben Schwartwalder told Ernie Davis that, despite his injury, he was starting.
Though hampered physically, his talent and spirit prevailed. It only took 83 seconds into the game for the crowd of almost 75,000 in Dallas to understand that the Elmira Express, though slowed, was leaving the station. On the third play from scrimmage, Davis hauled in a halfback option pass from Ger Schwedes and scored on the 87-yard play, setting a Cotton Bowl record.
Playing in pain, the sophomore scored again in the second quarter on a
three-yard run. He also caught a pair of two-point conversion passes and intercepted a Texas aerial that led to Syracuse's final touchdown. The 23-14 victory gave Syracuse its only national championship in football.
Named MVP, Davis had singlehandedly outscored Texas, 16-14. But that night, because Davis and his two black teammates weren't allowed to dine with the rest of the team at the awards banquet, the Syracuse team refused to attend the dinner.
Odds 'n' ends
Ernie's father, whom he never knew, was killed in an accident. At 14 months, his mother brought him to live with her parents, who had 12 children of their own.
He called his grandfather "Dad." The elderly man worked six days a week in a mine for 42 years. He survived three cave-ins and once was buried underground for five days.
As a youngster, "Dad" took Ernie to see Josh Gibson and the Homestead Grays of the Negro League. Davis' favorite player was first baseman Buck Leonard.
Davis broke his right wrist in the first minute of his first game as a JV freshman at Elmira Free Academy and missed the entire season.
Despite his physical prowess, Davis could not properly do a push-up
because of his thick hips and gangly arms.
Davis was a three-time all-conference basketball player in high school, Elmira Player of the Year for the same years, and just as in football was twice a prep school All-America.
During his junior and senior years, the Elmira basketball team had a 52-game winning streak, the New York state record until Lew Alcindor came along.
In Davis' final 67 high school games, Elmire went 66-1.
Davis also won four letters in baseball while at Elmira.
During Davis' last two years in high school, Syracuse football coach Ben Schwartzwalder made approximately 30 visits.
Davis was the only black player on the 1958 Syracuse freshman team, the first undefeated season in school history. He scored 32 points in one game.
As a sophomore, Davis outscored Syracuse's opponents, 80-73, as Syracuse went 11-0, including the Cotton Bowl.
That 1959 team led the nation in 18 statistical categories, including total offense and total defense.
Davis' senior season probably was not his best despite winning the Heisman. Schwartzwalder said the award was a "tribute to his three years really, rather than just one."
Career numbers for Ernie Davis at Syracuse: school record 6.6 yards
per carry, 38 receptions for 392 yards, 35 touchdowns and 3,414 total
all-purpose yards. For comparison, Jim Brown's career numbers: 5.8
yards per carry, 11 receptions for 120 yards, 25 touchdowns and 3,225
Also drafted by the AFL's Buffalo Bills, Davis signed with the Cleveland Browns for less money than what the Bill offered. In Buffalo in July after his senior year, he was booed when introduced in a college all-star game.
Davis was Elmira's favorite son. Lying in state in his adopted home
after his death on May 18, 1963, more than 10,000 people filed past his coffin in one day.
In 1964 the building that was Elmira Free Academy became a junior high school. It now has a new name: Ernie Davis Middle School. On its grounds a life-sized statue of Davis is prominent. He carries books in one hand and a football in the other.
Along with Brown and Floyd Little, Ernie Davis made No. 44 a storied number at Syracuse. "44" is remembered daily at Syracuse; it's the first two digits of the local phone exchange and the last two digits of the zip code.