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Ernie Davis' legacy lives on long after his death

Cleveland Browns
The Browns honored Ernie Davis by retiring his No. 45, even though he never played a down in the NFL.


Ernie Davis' only real NFL footnote was that, as part of a trade between Washington and Cleveland in 1962, he became the first black player drafted first overall. In joining the Browns, the fleet, 6-foot-2, 210-pound Davis was to be paired with the legendary Jim Brown.

It was to be the most incredible assemblage of running back talent ever.


Ernie Davis is the subject of the movie The Express, which opens on Friday.

» Wyche: Davis left lasting impact

Videos:
» Steve Wyche discusses The Express
» Eddie George on making of The Express

Photos:
» Ernie Davis through the years
» Behind the scenes of The Express

"Nothing would have equaled Ernie Davis and Jim Brown," former Browns owner Art Modell said.

But it wasn't to be.

Davis was diagnosed with a highly toxic form of leukemia shortly after being drafted out of Syracuse University, where he starred at halfback and defensive back. He died May 18, 1963. He was 23.

For 45 years, nearly twice as long as Davis lived, his legend held strong among friends, acquaintances, fans and family members. The stories have grown more hushed over time, as some of those who knew him have died or grown to where their recollection has become somewhat of a faint memory.

"The Express," a film chronicling Davis' brief but impactful life, re-introduces Davis to the world this week. It is a dramatized story, but it captures the essence of a man who was one of the greatest college football players of his time and the first Negro -- his societal designation in that era -- to win the Heisman Trophy, college football's greatest prize.

"I've lived these things, the Ernie Davis story," Brown said in a recent interview. "It is a great story, but Ernie Davis is not new to me. He was a guy who had all this talent. A good dude. Everybody loved him. White. Black. We were dealing in the most volatile times in America -- the '60s. There was Malcolm (X), Elijah (Muhammad), Huey (Newton) and Stokely (Carmichael), Angela (Davis), J. Edgar Hoover, Richard Nixon, John Kennedy. Ernie, me, we were in all of that.

"He found a way through it all. He had that thing."

Overcoming the odds

That thing, according to those that knew him, was a paintbrush of generosity, humanity, dignity and competitiveness that he spread over a canvas of racial intolerance, a speech impediment, a barely integrated college campus, 100 yards of football turf and nearly 8,395 days of life.

"Ernie Davis didn't die at a young age," said John Brown, his former Syracuse and Browns teammate and best friend. "He lived at a young age."

Nothing ever was easy for Davis. He just simply didn't know better, the same way someone who never has had three square meals doesn't realize he's not getting what most would consider a normal day's nourishment.

"They told him as gently as they could that it was an incurable case of leukemia. It was awful, but the way he took it, it seemed like much more of a blow to me and his teammates than it was to him."

-- Art Modell

That's why, when he was told of his terminal illness in the summer of 1962, he -- at least publicly -- seemed barely fazed. He'd get through it, just like he had when he overcame a once-ridiculed stammer. Like when he overcame racial insults and in-the-pile punches and pinches by Texas players in his dazzling 1960 Cotton Bowl appearance that earned unbeaten Syracuse a national championship. Or when he disarmed a volatile situation at a Virginia diner that almost led to violence when he, John Brown and other friends were denied service on a trip to visit friends. He simply persuaded his friends to leave.

This leukemia was something that his will, diligence and trust in doctors -- and Modell -- could be overcome, too.

"I sat in the room with the doctor and Ernie when they told him," Modell recalled. "They told him as gently as they could that it was an incurable case of leukemia. It was awful, but the way he took it, it seemed like much more of a blow to me and his teammates than it was to him. They didn't have anything, nothing to save him. He never once said to me, or in my presence, 'Why me?' There was never any self pity."

"He was going to the movies one night (in Cleveland)," added John Brown. "Somebody rushed up to him and asked for his autograph. He said, 'I'm not Ernie Davis.' The person said, 'Well, you should be glad you're not Ernie Davis because Ernie Davis is dying.' Then he looked at the person and said, 'I am Ernie Davis, and I'm not dying.'"

Davis learned to live life to its fullest in Uniontown, Pa. His father died before he ever really knew him, and his mother, Marie, left him to be raised by her strict, yet supportive parents. When he was 12, his mother, then re-married, re-claimed Ernie and moved him to Elmira, N.Y.

He became active in youth football, basketball and baseball and was the best player in every sport. In high school, he was so good in football that he was one of the rare Negro athletes in the 1950s to be recruited by dozens of predominantly white universities. Along the way, a local sportswriter dubbed him, "The Elmira Express."

Jim Brown's influence

Syracuse coach Ben Schwartzwalder was a frequent visitor, but it took the help of Jim Brown, a former Syracuse star who already was with the Cleveland Browns, to get Davis to attend Syracuse.

"Ernie was a very sophisticated young man, a great all-around athlete," Jim Brown said. "My first meeting with him I said I was going to tell him the truth. I said, 'If you like Caucasian women, it's not the place for you.' We had broken down some barriers, and I thought it would be a good school. It was in the East, wouldn't be too far from home, and he could carry on this legacy. It would be a challenge, but Ben was a good coach, and they really wanted him.

"I told him it wouldn't be a cakewalk, because we're still breaking down barriers. I don't think he was getting that message from too many schools (that were recruiting him), because there wasn't a whole bunch of us at any one place to tell him the truth. I also told him that he could be a part of bringing justice and dignity, in a much quieter way, just because of how he was and I was. I had a little bit of an attitude.

"He had a great way of bringing a spirit to people from different walks of life. Very few people could cross those lines."

Syracuse University Athletics
Davis earned the Heisman Trophy in 1961, becoming the first African-American to win the award.

Davis ended up following Brown to Syracuse. He was given Brown's No. 44 jersey, and a legacy had begun. Floyd Little, whom Davis helped recruit to Syracuse, wore No. 44 and was a three-time All-American. The university retired the No. 44 jersey in 2005.

Although freshmen weren't allowed to play in varsity games, Davis quickly became the team star by dominating in practice. His humility drew acceptance by even some of the more intolerant players and coaches, who often had no choice but to admire and respect his athletic greatness and competitive nature, if nothing else.

Jim Brown, a noted civil rights activist to this day, marveled at Davis' character.

"There was a lot of growth in him," said Jim Brown. "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. 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."

John Brown laughs at young men today when they tell him they wouldn't have been as accommodating as Davis or a lot of other black people in the 1950s and '60s when faced with racial intolerance and hatred.

"Those were those times, and if you lived in those times, you stood for whatever was going on in those times," John Brown said.

After surpassing most of Jim Brown's rushing records, Davis was named the Heisman Trophy winner in 1961. The day he was honored at the Downtown Athletic Club in New York, he had a chance encounter with President John F. Kennedy, who also was in the city. Kennedy was such a fan, he asked for a meeting with Davis.

"The greatest thing I think happened to him was when he went to meet President Kennedy," John Brown said. "He said, 'I met President Kennedy,' and he told me what a humble guy President Kennedy was. But here was the humble guy, because he didn't run around campus telling everybody that he'd met President Kennedy."

NFL career short-lived

Not long after, Davis was drafted first overall by the Washington Redskins, who immediately traded him to Cleveland for Hall of Fame running back Bobby Mitchell. He signed a contract with the Browns, reportedly for nearly $100,000, although his friends said they believed it was for much more. At any rate, it was a whopping figure for that era.

"I wanted him, hoped for him, to be able to run one doggone kickoff back. I think that would have satisfied him."

-- John Brown

Behind the scenes, Davis began having nose bleeds and bleeding gums, which he figured were normal accompaniments to the physical nature of football. Alarms began to sound during workouts for an exhibition game between college and pro all-stars.

Davis was sluggish and slow. His glands swelled, and doctors suspected mumps.

Initial tests revealed leukemia in its most serious form.

There were more tests and similar results. At one point, Davis was cleared to play his rookie season by one doctor, who said he wasn't contagious or at risk because it was a blood disease.

He would beat this, he thought, just like everything else that had come in his way throughout his young life.

Modell conferred with coach Paul Brown, who conferred with other doctors. Those doctors told Brown that Davis would be in harm's way if he played. Brown refused to play Davis. It was a point of contention between Modell and Brown, but Brown won.

Davis wouldn't play again.

"It bothered me," said John Brown, who lived with Davis in Cleveland. "I wasn't privy to the dynamics (involving) Mr. Modell and coach Paul Brown, but here was a guy who reached the optimum. I wanted him, hoped for him, to be able to run one doggone kickoff back. I think that would have satisfied him. Mr. Modell wanted him to (play), but I don't think coach Brown did."

Though Davis' cleats never churned a football field again, he did set foot on the field at Cleveland Stadium in what Modell -- and those who were there -- will tell you was one of the most memorable nights in Browns lore.

Before a preseason game with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Davis was introduced with the team.

"The PA announcer said, 'Here is another member of the Browns' offensive team, No. 45, Ernie Davis,' " Modell said. "The place was bedlam. You couldn't hear yourself think. It was extraordinary. The ovation he received, you can't describe it. A lot of people didn't know what he had or knew that he was really very sick. There were rumors, but still, people cheered and screamed. It was unbelievable, and that made him happy."

Said John Brown: "Oh man, that night. He had on his skinny tie, tweed jacket, nice shirt. It was like there was a hush as he walked out to the middle of the field. You had something like 85,000 people go crazy when the spotlight hit him. I'm sure there were a lot of people that were around that told their kids."

John Brown has told his kids and anyone else who would listen over the years about Ernie Davis. After recently sharing his recollection of Davis, he struggled his way out of a chair -- he just had both knees replaced -- and he grabbed the hand of a strapping young man, standing at his side. The young man had been silent the whole time Brown told his tales, even when he broke down in tears.

After gathering himself, Brown politely turned back, realizing he hadn't introduced the young man.

"Excuse me, I'm sorry," he said. "This is my son -- Ernie."

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