Ernie Davis becomes the first African-American to win the Heisman Trophy
‘Winning the Heisman Trophy is something you just dream about. You never think it could happen to you’
Ernie Davis, a two-time All-American halfback at Syracuse University, lived a short life as a result of leukemia. He died at age 23 in 1963, but managed to lead his high school basketball team to a 52-game winning streak, help Syracuse win its only national football title and become the No. 1 pick in the 1961 NFL draft.
On Dec. 6, 1961, he became the first African-American to win the prestigious Heisman Trophy.
Coming out of high school, Davis had his pick of schools to attend, but Syracuse — a school only 90 miles away from his home — stood above the fray. From 1954 to 1956, the Orangemen boasted Jim Brown, who starred for Syracuse at halfback and went on to become a legend for the Cleveland Browns.
“I wanted to play in the big-time,” Davis said, “and a lot of people, including Jim Brown, persuaded me that I’d have better opportunities there.”
Davis led the freshman team to its first unbeaten season and did so as the lone black player on the team. Many had him pegged as the “next Jim Brown,” and Davis even wore Brown’s No. 44 during his sophomore campaign, in which he led the team in yards (686), yards per carry (7), and scored eight rushing touchdowns (10 total).
Syracuse bullied other teams, outscoring opponents 390-59, and topped off its 10-0 season with a 23-14 win against Texas in the Cotton Bowl. Even though Davis was hampered by a strained hamstring, he still managed two scores, hauled in a Cotton-Bowl-record 87-yard catch. His efforts were rewarded when he was named the game’s MVP.
The caveat to Davis receiving the award was that he wouldn’t be allowed to attend the awards banquet — that was for only white players. After dinner, Davis and his black Syracuse teammates were asked to leave.
“There was a lot of growth in him,” Brown told NFL.com. “He had to deal with things on the team and in school and his private life, and he was able to do that. People tried to make him into a character they wanted him to be, but it wasn’t in his personality. He had to learn a lot on just functioning and being able to perform at his highest level. He had to look out for teammates, understand for the coach. The coach wasn’t identifying what’s going on in his life outside of football, so he had to know when to step up and when not to step up. All those decisions were put on an individual who was considered the star.
“He was the star, but he was black. You’re the greatest cat, but you’re inferior,” Brown said. “On one level, you’re the greatest. The other level, you can’t eat at a restaurant. He handled things without ever selling out. He wasn’t an Uncle Tom.”
Two years later, Davis made history when he won the Heisman over Ohio State’s Bob Ferguson and Texas’ Jimmy Saxton. That night, Davis met President John F. Kennedy while in New York to receive his trophy.
The Orangeman finished his career with 2,386 rushing yards and 220 points, both of which broke Brown’s Syracuse records.
“Imagine,” Davis said, “a president wanting to shake hands with me.
“Winning the Heisman Trophy is something you just dream about. You never think it could happen to you.”
The Washington football team selected Davis with the first overall pick in the draft, and immediately traded him to the Browns. The team then signed Davis to a three-year, $65,000 contract — the largest for a rookie at that time.
While training for the College All-Stars game against the NFL champion Green Bay Packers in July 1962, Davis noticed bleeding from his nose and gums, and swelling in his neck. Trainers sent him to a hospital, and doctors discovered he had leukemia. They diagnosed it as a blood disorder, but the cancer would end Davis’ NFL career before it started.
“Either you fight or you give up,” Davis told media outlets. “For a time I was so despondent I would just lie there, not even wanting to move. One day, I got hold of myself. I decided I would face up to whatever I had and try to beat it.”
For a time, the cancer went into remission, Davis’ blood count evened out, and he was even practicing with the Browns again. However, after multiple consultations with doctors, coach Paul Brown opted not to play Davis.
Davis re-entered the hospital the following spring, and on May 18, 1963, he died in his sleep.
“Some people say I am unlucky. I don’t believe it,” Davis wrote in March 1963 for The Saturday Evening Post. “And I don’t want to sound as if I am particularly brave or unusual. Sometimes I still get down, and sometimes I feel sorry for myself. Nobody is just one thing all the time.
“But when I look back, I can’t call myself unlucky. My 23rd birthday was Dec. 14. In these years I have had more than most people get in a lifetime.”