Potentially one of the greatest athletes of our time, Ernie Davis never got his chance to showcase his talents at the next level. Davis dominated the ranks in football and basketball. He helped Elmira Free Academy in Elmira, N.Y., to a 52-game winning streak in high school basketball even though basketball wasn’t his sport of choice.It was football. Davis was recruited by over 30 schools to play football. Schools such as UCLA and Notre Dame. But Davis stayed close to home. Syracuse University was less than 100 miles from Davis’ home, and Hall of Fame running back Jim Brown also helped Davis in his decision, saying he would get more opportunities at Syracuse.
By his sophomore year with the Orangemen, Davis was not only a starter but was the team’s primary offensive weapon.
People knew the impact Davis would have on the team. No one, however, was prepared for the mark Davis would leave in American history.
When Syracuse defeated Texas in the Cotton Bowl, the racial tensions began. There were altercations during the game stemming from racial slurs. But when Syracuse beat Texas 23-14 and Davis was named the game’s Most Valuable Player, the National Collegiate Athletic Association told Davis that since he was African-American he could not attend the banquet and he was to accept his trophy and leave.
As a result, the Orange-men refused to attend the banquet for their only National Championship in the school’s history. Davis ended his career with 2,386 rushing yards and 220 points, breaking Brown’s school records.
It was in 1961 when Davis made his mark on history. He became the first African-American to win the Heisman Trophy, an award given to the most outstanding player in college football.
The Washington Redskins made Davis the first pick in the National Football League draft on Dec. 4, 1961, but soon traded him to the Cleveland Browns, who signed him to the largest contract up to that time, three years for $65,000 plus a $15,000 bonus.
But Davis never got to play in the NFL. He would later die from complications stemming from leukemia in 1963.