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Ernie Davis: Hero on and off the Field

In honor of Black History Month, NCSA is recognizing African-American Athleaders in history.

Ernie Davis is sometimes called the greatest running back of all time.

He was born in New Salem, Pennsylvania, in 1939, and his father died a few months later. He spent much of his childhood with his grandparents in poverty-stricken Uniontown, PA. When he was 12, he moved in with his mother in Elmira. In high school, he lettered in three sports, and was selected as an All-American in football and basketball. Despite dozens of recruiting offers from all over the country, he decided to play football at nearby Syracuse.

He was the only black player on the team as a freshman, and as a sophomore, he led an undefeated Syracuse to its only National Championship. He earned MVP at the Liberty Bowl and – while injured – at the Cotton Bowl, too. He set school records for scoring and yardage, and became the first African American to win the Heisman Trophy.

Despite his success on the field, he faced incredible adversity off of it. His college career took place during some of the most turbulent days of the civil rights movement. Sit-ins and “Freedom Rides” were in full swing. Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. were rising to prominence.

The worst incident of his career was at the Cotton Bowl awards banquet. The organizers told him he was told he could accept his MVP award, but that he would have to return to the segregated room immediately afterwards. Shocked, Davis refused to go at all. His mostly-white teammates stood with him to a man. Not a single Syracuse player attended the banquet.

His success in college caught the attention of the Cleveland Browns, who selected him first overall in the 1962 NFL draft. Sadly, during preparations for the 1962 College All-Star Game, he was diagnosed with acute monocytic leukemia. His only NFL appearance was during a preseason game against the Pittsburgh Steelers. When Davis, who had been given less than a year to live, walked onto the field in uniform, all 78,000 fans in the stadium rose to their feet. The thunderous applause and cheers went on for five minutes.

The following March, he wrote an article about his life in the Saturday Evening Post: “Some people say I am unlucky,” he wrote, “But when I look back I can’t call myself unlucky. My 23rd birthday was December 14. In these years I have had more than most people get in a lifetime … I gained merely by doing what I liked to do most.”

On May 10, Ernie witnessed to a milestone in the civil rights movement. After months of being jailed, attacked by dogs, and sprayed by fire hoses, a band of activists led by Martin Luther King, Jr. succeeded in desegregating the lunch counters and public spaces of Birmingham, Alabama.

He died in his sleep six days later.

Today, there is a banner hanging in the Carrier Dome at Syracuse University featuring Ernie’s retired number 44 along with a twenty-foot-tall picture of him – larger than life, as always.

About the author
Aaron Sorenson