Why Ernie Davis Matters

Culture Watch

Dr. Yanek Mieczkowski chairs the History Department at Dowling College. A specialist in post-World War II U.S. history, he is the author of Gerald Ford and the Challenges of the 1970s (2005) and The Routledge Historical Atlas of Presidential Elections (2001). Please visit his website featuring a biographical essay on Ernie Davis, www.erniedavishistory.com.

 “The Express,” which opened nationwide October 10, profiles Ernie Davis, who in 1961 became the first African-American to win the Heisman Trophy. 

Davis might seem an odd subject for a movie.  He is little-known.  Despite a stellar college football career, no NFL record books mention him.  But he is a symbol of a time, and his life offers enduring lessons in humanity and courage.

A spectacular athlete at Syracuse University, Davis followed in the footsteps of his idol, Cleveland Browns star Jim Brown, wearing the number Brown made legendary, 44.  The halfback Davis (nicknamed “The Elmira Express,” reflecting his speed, locomotive-like power, and Elmira, New York roots) helped the Orange to a national title and broke Brown’s records, rushing for 2,386 yards and scoring 35 touchdowns.  By capturing the Heisman, Davis succeeded where Brown could not; in 1956, Brown—who complained of racial polarization in college football—placed only fifth in Heisman voting, despite a standout senior year at Syracuse. 

What a difference five years made.  Winning the Heisman during the civil rights era, Davis represented the hopes of a new generation of African Americans.  Just months before Davis won, for example, activists engaged in “Freedom Rides” that helped to integrate southern bus stations and buses. 

But Davis was more than an athlete or civil rights pioneer.  Friends found his personal qualities—his innate kindness and modesty—far more impressive than his sporting feats or fame.  “He was obviously a marvelous athlete, but he was an even better person,” said Jack Moore, Davis’s co-captain on their high school basketball team. 

Davis’s thoughtfulness touched many.  Once, at a high school dance, a big, drunken student tried to start a fight with Davis’s friend Bob Hill, who was much smaller.  “Ernie saw it,” Hill remembered, and he quietly pushed the student aside, saying, “Let’s not have any of that, because he’s a friend of mine.”  On another occasion, a boy tried out for the football team but knew so little about the game that he put his shoulder pads on backwards.  Players teased him, but Davis walked over, introduced himself, and helped him to wear the equipment properly. 

In college, Davis remained humble even as his gridiron fame grew.  John Mackey, a future NFL great who roomed with Davis, recalled one evening when they planned to see a movie.  At the theater, a lady begged them for spare change for food.  Davis gave her his money and convinced Mackey to do likewise.  “We never did see the movie because we were out of money,” Mackey said.  “We wound up going back to the dorm.  But that was Ernie.  Always generous.  Always looking out for others.”

When Davis graduated in 1962, the Cleveland Browns made him the nation’s number-one draft pick, planning to pair him with Brown in the backfield.  They would comprise football’s greatest running attack. 

But during the summer, Davis started feeling strangely tired, and his gums bled.  Eventually, doctors gave the grim diagnosis:  leukemia.  Davis remained upbeat, exercising and even practicing with the Browns, although he never got into a game.  He had long aspired to play professional football, but that dream went unfulfilled.

Yet Davis faced his illness bravely.  John Wooten, a Cleveland player, said he never heard Davis complain:  “He always spoke in terms of being okay, coming back.  He was so high-spirited.  In all these years, I’ve never seen anyone like this kid.  He was special, indeed.”

To the end, Davis remained gracious. Before being hospitalized for blood transfusions, he asked his Browns roommate, Syracuse classmate John Brown, to tell friends he was “out of town” to ease their worries about him. 

On May 16, 1963, Davis visited Browns owner Art Modell at his office.  His neck visibly swollen, Davis apologized for his medical expenses and promised to make a comeback.  Two days later, at age 23, he died. 

Tributes poured in.  President John Kennedy called Davis “an outstanding young man of great character” and “an inspiration to the young people of this country.”  Davis’s Syracuse coach, Ben Schwartzwalder, said, “When you talk about Ernie Davis, you’re treading on hallowed ground.  We always thought he had a halo around him, and now we know he has.”

The lessons of Ernie Davis’s life resonate, especially today, whenever sports fans see athletes involved in drug scandals or run-ins with the law.  They would do well to remember Davis, and maybe the movie will help.  “The Express” was almost a superhuman athlete, but his humanity left the deepest impact.  More than an African-American star in the civil rights era, Davis was, said John Brown, “a genuine gentle man as well as a gentleman.”  That was his legacy, and that is why he matters.

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