If Ernie Davis’s life seems like a tragedy of promise unfulfilled, it’s because the “Elmira Express” had already done so much to fulfill his potential and break down barriers as an athlete and a man before disease struck him down.
Ernest Davis was born in New Salem, Pennsylvania, on December 14, 1939. He lived with his grandparents in Uniontown until age 11, when he moved to Elmira, New York to live with his mother. Ernie became a three-sport star at the Elmira Free Academy, leading the Blue Devils to two league championships in football.
As he neared graduation, Davis was eyed by Major League baseball scouts, while his friends expected him to get a basketball scholarship for college. Ernie himself was interested in academics as well as athletics. In his era an athlete couldn’t expect to live on the money made from sports for the rest of his life. The football star Jim Brown recommended his own alma mater, Syracuse University, as a school that could prepare Davis for both football and business careers.
At Syracuse, Davis wore number 44, the same number Jim Brown wore. In three years on the varsity squad, Davis broke Brown’s school records for rushing and all-purpose yards, yards per carry, touchdowns and points scored. The “Express” also reached two milestones denied Brown. On New Year’s Day, 1960, Davis led the Orangemen to victory over the University of Texas in the Cotton Bowl Classic. He starred on offense and defense, intercepting a pass as well as scoring, rushing and receiving touchdowns. The win earned Syracuse its first-ever championship in Division 1-A football, as determined by coaches and sportswriters. Two years later, Davis became the first African-American to win the Heisman Trophy for most outstanding player in college football.
Following the 1961 college season, Davis was the first African-American to be drafted by the Washington Redskins, the last whites-only team in the National Football League. Davis didn’t want to play for a presumably racist team, so the Redskins traded him to the Cleveland Browns, where he would become Jim Brown’s teammate.
Before joining the Browns for the 1962 season, Davis was named to the College All-Star Team that played annually against the NFL championship team. Davis missed that game due to an illness diagnosed as acute monocytic leukemia, an incurable blood-cell disease. After intense treatments, doctors declared the disease in remission and there was hope that Davis could return to football for the 1963 NFL season. His struggle with the disease made him an even bigger hero with sports fans and Americans in general. But shortly after Davis wrote about his fight for The Saturday Evening Post, his health turned for the worse again. Within days of returning to the hospital, he died on May 18, 1963.
The Cleveland Browns retired Davis’s number 45, even though he had never played a professional football game. The Elmira Free Academy eventually became the Ernie Davis Middle School. The 2008 movie The Express told his story to a new generation. If Ernie Davis made history in life, his tragic fate has made him an American legend.