Ernie Davis Last Down
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Ernie Davis’ Last Down

The Heisman Trophy winner broke professional and racial barriers before dying of cancer at 23

By Jocelyn Selim

In August 1962, as Ernie Davis walked onto the field of Cleveland Municipal Stadium in his Browns uniform for a preseason game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, the five-minute standing ovation from 78,000 fans seemed endless. The appearance of Davis, the first overall pick in that year’s draft, was one of the most eagerly awaited professional debuts in football history. Originally snapped up by the Washington Redskins, Davis had been pursued by the Cleveland Browns through almost any means necessary: The team had traded both its first-round draft pick and one of its best players, and offered Davis the princely sum of $200,000—the largest contract ever awarded to a rookie player at the time.

Browns owner Art Modell and head coach Paul Brown easily justified Davis’ cost. A 6-foot, 2-inch running back, Davis was on the cusp of one of the most brilliant careers in football. Playing college ball at Syracuse University in New York, he had led his team to an undefeated national championship, and had been named first-team All-American two years in a row. He had also earned himself a national nickname, the Elmira Express, homage to both his tiny hometown in upstate New York and his speed at rushing through opposing team’s defenses.

Davis wasn’t just exceptional on the field; he broke color barriers. Voted the Most Valuable Player (MVP) of the 1960 Cotton Bowl in Texas, he had pulled off, with a pulled hamstring, an all-time Cotton Bowl record pass reception of 87 yards. In the biography The Elmira Express, author Robert Gallagher recounts a telling story: When Syracuse’s Texan hosts and opponents informed the team that, because Davis was black, he could attend the award banquet only long enough to collect his MVP trophy and leave, his teammates, nearly all white, voted to boycott the dinner.

It wasn’t the first time Davis had navigated racism, and it wouldn’t be the last. Davis was winning games like the Cotton Bowl amid the struggles of the civil rights movement. It was the era when freedom rides were being organized throughout the South, and Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X were gaining national prominence. Davis wasn’t a politician himself: He was a shy football player who had overcome a severe stuttering problem in his youth and still suffered from jitters before public speaking engagements. But his achievements spoke louder than words. Gallagher relates the story of a white resident of Davis’ hometown who once recalled noticing that his son was “drinking an inordinate amount of chocolate milk.” When the father asked the child why, the young boy replied, “I want to be like Ernie Davis.”

In 1961, Davis made history by becoming the first black athlete to win the Heisman Trophy, the highest honor in college football. Sportswriters were already referring to him as the greatest running back ever to play the game.

But more than that, Modell and Brown knew, Davis was a player they could depend on. It’s easy for someone to perform well when his team is dominating a game, but Davis was one of those guys a coach wanted around in a pinch: a player with a habit of making impossible plays, of pulling out a win from near-disaster. Davis, together with Jim Brown—a previous recruit from Syracuse—were to supply a dream backfield that the Browns hoped would take them to dizzying heights and an NFL championship.

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