Ernest Davis commonly referred to as “Ernie” by friends and colleagues, was an American football halfback who passed away at the mere age of 23 due to complications from leukemia. Born in New Salem, Pennsylvania on December 14, 1939, Davis was a popular athlete in his school and college years. His athletic ability, perseverance and hard work came in to the limelight after becoming the first African American to have been awarded the Heisman Trophy. After his father passed away in a car accident, he lived with his mother and stepfather in Elmira, New York where he attended Elmira Free Academy. This is where Davis gained his foundational abilities as an incredible player in baseball, football and basketball.
A number of top college football programs began noticing Davis’ unique set of skills, especially when it came to football. Davis eventually went to Syracuse University for college, and played for the team from 1959 to 1961. While he never played in his freshman year, he was known to be quite thrilling to watch in practice sessions. Here he won the All-American honors twice, becoming a celebrity amongst the crowd of fans, peers and the like. His time at Syracuse was marred by immense accomplishments, and by the end of his time there, was known as the ‘Elmira Express’ due to his tremendous pace behind the ball. He led the Syracuse team to win a championship in 1959, finishing off the season with a record 11-0 winning streak. One of his most significant victories during this time was a 23–14 win against the Texas Longhorns, in the Cotton Bowl Classic of 1960. Ernie Davis was given the ‘Most Valuable Player’ award. In his 3rd year, he set some more records with a remarkable figure of 7.8 yards per carry and also being one of only a handful to have run for 100 yards six consecutive times. This figure was followed closely by another staggering effort the next season with 823 yards rushed. The 1961 season featured a 8–3 win-to-lose figure, the most remembered match being against the Miami Hurricanes in the Liberty Bowl where Davis’ team won 15-14. Davis finished his college career with an astounding 2,386 total rushing yards, 6.6 yards per carry and 35 touchdowns, most of which were known to be all-time highs at the time.
Despite his incredible athletic ability and down-to-earth personality, Davis was victim to racism several times in the early 1960s. However, he refused to let it interfere with his professional career, a domain he was clearly excelling in. His professional career never took prominent shape since he was diagnosed with leukemia shortly after being drafted by the Cleveland Browns in 1961. The initial draft was actually made to the Washington Redskins, but was never sealed due to their manager’s hesitance to sign a Black player. Having signed one of the most expensive contracts in the history of the NFL, Davis regrettably never got around playing a professional game. While he was allowed to train with his teammates, his health soon deteriorated and was eventually admitted to Cleveland Lakeside Hospital for chemotherapy. Even after a 4-5 month remission period, Ernie Davis tragically passed away on May 18, 1963 at the age of 23. He has since been elected for the 2008 College Hall of Fame and has had several statues and buildings constructed in his name.