Ernest R. Davis, commonly known as Ernie, was one of the best running backs ever to play college football. He followed the legendary Jim Brown to Syracuse University, where he led the Orangemen to a national championship in 1959, and in 1961 he became the first African American to be awarded the Heisman Trophy, given to the college game's best player. On the precipice of a promising career with the Cleveland Browns of the National Football League (NFL), Davis was struck with leukemia. He never played in a single NFL game and died on May 18, 1963, at the age of 23. He is remembered as a superior athlete and a young man who lived and died with dignity, grace, and compassion.
The Young Athlete
Davis was born on December 14, 1939, in New Salem, Pennsylvania, to Marie Davis. His parents were separated, and his father was killed in an auto accident before Davis was born. Young and needing a job, Davis's mother sent him to live with his maternal grandparents in Uniontown, Pennsylvania, when he was fourteen months old. Willie, a coalminer, and Elizabeth Davis already had twelve children but welcomed their young grandson into their home. Davis spent his early years playing sports with his older uncles.
When he was eleven years old, Davis's mother remarried and summoned her only child to Elmira, New York, to live with her. For Davis, who was quiet and shy, the transition was tough, but his athletic abilities, already apparent at a young age, helped earn him the respect of the kids at the local community center. Also, even in his youth, others noticed the special quality of Davis's character that radiated sincerity, enthusiasm, and friendliness. He played tackle on Small Fry football for the Superior Buick team. Although he was big for his age, he never delivered punishing blows and often would simply pick the smaller kids up and wait for the whistle to blow rather than slam them to the ground.
As a freshman at Elmira Free Academy, Ernie joined the junior varsit...