• Sal Maiorana

Ernie Davis in Memoriam: The SU legend had a short but remarkable life

The life-sized bronze statue stands tall on a granite pedestal outside the junior high school in Elmira, N.Y. that bears his name. It depicts Ernie Davis, the one-time “Elmira Express” in a letterman’s sweater, books in one hand, a football in the other.

That sculpture serves as a reminder of a true hero – who passed away on May 18, 1963, his promising life cut short by leukemia at age 23 – and someone who handled living and dying with remarkable dignity and grace.

In Elmira, where he won 11 varsity sports letters and All-American honors in football and basketball, and in Syracuse, where, in 1961 he became the first African-American to capture the prestigious Heisman Trophy, Davis’ legacy remains strong.

After a superb athletic career at Elmira Free Academy in the mid- to late-1950s, Davis chose Syracuse over Notre Dame because he wanted to follow in the footsteps of his idol, Jim Brown, who had gone on to greatness with the Cleveland Browns in the National Football League.

No one was more pleased with Davis’ decision than SU football coach Ben Schwartzwalder, who had made 30 recruiting visits to Elmira during the running back’s senior season of high school.

Schwartzwalder saw the same football attributes in Davis that he had in Brown, so it wasn’t surprising that the coach wound up issuing him Big Jim’s old number – 44.

Davis did the jersey proud, rushing for 2,386 yards during his three varsity seasons to eclipse Brown’s school record. Though many have since gone on to surpass Davis’ yardage totals at SU, no one has come close to equaling his career average of 6.63 yards per carry.

Davis wasted little time establishing himself as one of college football’s impact players, averaging seven yards per carry and scoring eight touchdowns to lead the 1959 team to an 11-0 record and the national championship.

That season was capped by Davis’ scintillating performance in a 23-14 victory over Texas in the Cotton Bowl. Despite nursing a severely pulled hamstring and dealing with racist treatment in the South, Davis caught an 87-yard touchdown pass, scored on a 1-yard run, tallied a pair of two-point conversions, and intercepted a pass in that victory.

Two years later, Davis concluded his brilliant college football career by winning the Heisman. Following the award ceremony at the Downtown Athletic Club in Manhattan, President John F. Kennedy asked to meet Davis.

“I got to shake hands with him,’’ Davis said later. “That was almost as big a thrill as winning the Heisman.’’

A month later, in January of 1962, Davis experienced another big thrill when he turned down a huge contract offer from the Buffalo Bills of the American Football League and signed for less-but-still-substantial money with the NFL’s Browns. Davis was going to get an opportunity to play in the same backfield as his Syracuse predecessor, Brown.

“The world was his oyster,’’ recalled former SU offensive tackle John Brown, Davis’ college roommate. “He had everything going for him at that time – looks, ability, character, charm, youth. Just about anyone would have traded places with him.’’

By September 1962, no one would have traded places with him. While prepping for the college all-star game against the Green Bay Packers in Buffalo, Davis began feeling run-down and noticed sores in his mouth and lumps on his neck. The symptoms persisted into the following week, and he checked into a hospital where he was soon diagnosed with leukemia.

“He was bewildered at first, but he didn’t complain,’’ recalled former Browns owner Art Modell. “In fact, almost immediately, he began talking about how he was going to lick this thing.’’

That fall his cancer went into remission, but it reoccurred at the beginning of 1963. Though discouraged by the news, Davis remained upbeat.

“He would have been justified cursing: ‘Why me, God? Why me?’ ‘‘ John Brown said. “But I never heard him bemoan his fate. I remember one time I came home from a particularly tough practice with the Browns. I was really down, really worried about making the team. Ernie sat there and listened to me bitch and tried to pick my spirits up. Suddenly, I realized how dumb I had been. I’m complaining about something as insignificant as making a football team in front of a guy battling for his life. That Ernie would listen to my little problems despite what he was facing was so typical of him. He always put the concerns of others ahead of himself.’’

Davis died at Lakeside Hospital in Cleveland and his death touched the nation, his story transcended sports.

About 10,000 mourners, including most of the members of the Browns team for which he never played, attended his funeral at Elmira’s Woodlawn Cemetery, where Mark Twain also is buried. Jim Brown, one of the pallbearers, spoke eloquently about the young man whom he inspired and befriended.

“I’ve always felt the words ‘great’ and ‘courage’ have been overused and abused,” said Brown. “I have never been one to take them idly. I say with the utmost sincerity: Ernie Davis, to me, was the greatest, most courageous person I’ve ever met. Though death is sad and often tragic – and these elements were present in Ernie’s death – his is not a sad story. He made our lives better, brighter, and fuller because we were privileged to know him. I find it difficult to believe he’s gone. Maybe it’s because I never heard him complain. The way he acted, he had me believing he’d make it.’’

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story was originally included in the book I co-authored with Scott Pitoniak entitled Slices of Orange - Great Games and Performers in Syracuse University Sports History. If interested in learning more about SU sports history, the book is available at Amazon.com.