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On This Date in Sports May 18, 1963: The Tragedy of Ernie Davis

Ernie Davis, the first African American to win the Heisman Trophy, dies at the age of 23 in Cleveland. Davis won the Heisman with Syracuse in 1961 and was the first pick in the NFL Draft by the Washington Redskins. After refusing to sign, he was traded to the Cleveland Browns. Before playing a game, Ernie Davis was diagnosed with Leukemia. Despite never playing, the Browns retired his number 45.

Ernie Davis was born in New Salem, Pennsylvania, on December 14, 1939. Davis was heavily recruited after becoming a star athlete in baseball, basketball, and football in Elmira, New York. He ultimately chose to play close to home at Syracuse, thanks to the efforts of his hero Jim Brown.

At Syracuse, Ernie Davis became a star right away, as help lead the Orangemen to a National Championship. After a strong Junior season, “The Elmira Express,” as he was nicknamed, made history by winning the Heisman Trophy by rushing for 823 yards with 14 touchdowns in his Senior year. In becoming the first African American to win the Heisman, Ernie Davis wins a close vote over Bob Fergusson of Ohio State and Jimmy Saxton of Texas. Davis got the trophy from President John F. Kennedy, who had been impressed by his play. Syracuse won the National Championship by beating Texas in the Cotton Bowl 23-14, with Davis and the other African American players on Syracuse facing harassment in the week leading up to the game in Dallas.

The NFL Draft was held at the end of the NCAA regular season on December 4th in Chicago. The Washington Redskins holding the first overall pick were under pressure to add an African American Player, with local officials threatening not to allow them to move into the new District of Columbia Stadium in 1962. The Redskins owned by the overtly racist George Preston Marshall, had never had a black player, with Marshall claiming he did not want to offend his southern fan base. Davis knew of Marshall’s racist views, refused to play with the Redskins, and could play in the AFL with the Buffalo Bills, who used the fourth overall pick.

The Redskins would eventually trade Ernie Davis to the Cleveland Browns for Bobby Mitchell, an established star, and first-round pick Leroy Jackson. The Brown inked Davis to a lucrative three-year contract before playing in the East-West Shrine Game. While preparing to play in the College All-Star Game against the Green Bay Packers the following summer, Davis began to feel ill when he woke up with a swollen neck. At the hospital, he was diagnosed with acute monocytic Leukemia. After being diagnosed, Ernie Davis was briefly allowed to practice without contact and dressed for one preseason game, working with his idol Jim Brown on new running schemes.

After a few months of treatment, Ernie Davis appeared to be in remission. Browns owner Art Modell wanted to get his star rookie into action. However, Paul Brown refused to allow it to cause a rift that would lead to the dismissal of the legendary coach. The disease was incurable, eventually claiming the young running back’s life. Despite never playing a game with the team, the Browns retired number 45, which he was set to wear in Cleveland. Ernie Davis was honored by both houses of Congress after his death, as a letter from President Kennedy.

Today a statue of Ernie Davis stands on the campus of Syracuse University and in front of a school that bears his name in Elmira, New York, while high school teams are now nicknamed the Elmira Express. In 2008, Ernie Davis’ story was told in the movie “The Express.”