Ernest R. Davis, popularly known as Ernie was an American football player who was the first African-American to win the Heisman Trophy. Ernie’s father passed in an auto accident away before he was born and he spent his early childhood with his maternal grandparents. At the young age, he returned to New York to live with his mother and step-father and enrolled in the Elmira Free Academy where he earned two All-American Honors. Ernie stepped in to the shoes of legendary Jim Brown in Syracuse University and with his immense talent led Orangemen to a national championship. He was the first pick in the National Football League (NFL) and was selected by Washington Redskins followed by Cleveland Browns. Destiny, however, had something else in store for Ernie as soon after his selection, he was diagnosed with Leukemia. He never got a chance to play in a professional game due to his illness and passed away at a very young age of 23 in Cleveland, Ohio. Universal Pictures film, ‘The Express’ was made on his story in which Rob Brown portrayed the role of Ernie Davis.
Childhood & Early Life
Ernie was born on December 14th, 1939 as Ernest R. Davis in New Salem, Pennsylvania. His father passed away in an auto accident before his birth and his mother, Avis Marie Davis Fleming sent him to live with his maternal grandparents as she was in search of a job.
He grew up in Uniontown Pennsylvania and moved to Elmira, New York at the age of 12 to live with his mother and step-father. He excelled as an athlete and in baseball, basketball, and football during his grade school.
Ernie played tackle on Small Fry football for the Superior Buick team and joined the junior varsity football team at Elmira Free Academy in New York. He completed his high school at Elmira Free Academy and joined college in Syracuse University.
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Ernie was selected in the junior varsity football team In Elmira Free Academy and broke his wrist in the first game. He went on to play basketball during his injury and scored 22 points in his first game.
During his sophomore year, he played defensive end in the football team in 1955 and led his team to win conference championship. He was moved as halfback by his coach in 1956 and his team, Blue Devils won another league title.
Ernie won all-conference for the third consecutive year in 1957 and played thirteen games at the halfback position. He made a school-record of 138 career points on 21 touchdowns and 12 place kicks at that time.
He also excelled at basketball during the same timeframe and led his team with 52 consecutive wins during his junior and senior school along with conference record of 1,065 points. He had an average of 18.4 points per game.
Ernie was approached by more than thirty colleges and he finally went for Syracuse University where his team went undefeated in 1958. He led Syracuse Orangemen to a record of 11-0 in 1959 opposite Texas Longhorns.
It was in the year 1960 that Davis had made a record of 7.8 yards per carry and also succeeded in becoming the third leading rusher across the country with 877 yards. His team finished with a glorious record of 7-2 in 1960.
In 1961, his team at Syracuse finished at a record of 8-3 and ended the season with a 15-14 win over Miami Hurricanes in the Liberty Bowl.
Ernie Davis was the first pick in the National Football League (NFL) and was selected by Washington Redskins followed by Cleveland Browns. He had signed a three-year contract with the Cleveland Browns in December, 1961 which amounted to $200,000. He was preparing for East-West Shrine Game during that time.
Ernie Davis was selected in the junior varsity football team at Elmira Free Academy where he had won three consecutive all-conference honors in the year 1957. He made a school-record of 138 career points during his high school.
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Davis made a record of 7.8 yards per carry in Syracuse University in 1960. He was awarded with a couple of all-Americans and a Heisman Trophy for his performance.
Awards & Achievements
Ernie Davis won first team All-American in the two consecutive years in 1960 and 1961. He won Heisman Trophy in 1961. He was given the title of ‘Elmira Express’.
Davis was named as the Player of the Year by a Sports Magazine in 1961. He received Walter Camp Trophy as the College Player of the Year and Chic Harley Award in 1961. He was honored with his name included in the College Football Hall of Fame in 1979.
A non-fiction book ‘Ernie Davis, the Elmira Express: The Story of a Heisman Trophy Winner’ was written by Robert C. Gallagher which was originally published on June 1st, 1999. Universal Pictures made a film ‘The Express’ on the same book which began production on April, 2007 and was released on October 10th, 2008. The character of Ernie Davis was played by Rob Brown in the movie and it made a box office collection of $9,808,124.
Davis was diagnosed with Leukemia in the summer of 1962 while he was preparing for College All-Star Game against the Green Bay Packers in Chicago. He started receiving medical treatment thereafter.
Ernie Davis died at the age of 23 on May 18th, 1963 due to incurable Leukemia at Cleveland Lakeside Hospital.
Ernie Davis faced racism during his game against University of Texas in 1960 in which he was named the player of the game. He was asked to leave the banquet hall as soon as he received the award and was also not allowed dinner along with one of his other black teammate. As a result, the entire Syracuse team boycotted the event.
President John F. Kennedy had been a followed of Ernie’s game. He had sent him a telegram in February, 1963 praising his journey and excellent in his game.
Davis wore the jersey no. 44 during his games in Syracuse. An on-field ceremony was held in which the school retired the number.