Ernie Davis, Ernie Davis Heisman Trophy, Ernie Davis Syracuse University

Ernie Davis

Ernie Davis' character in “The Express”

Ernie Davis

Athletes Home / Sports Channel

Who knows what Ernie Davis could have accomplished on the gridiron if leukemia hadn’t tragically cut his career, and life, short in 1963.

Davis was the first African-American to win college football’s most prestigious honor, the Heisman Trophy. The former Syracuse University running back not only won the Heisman in 1961, but was also named Liberty Bowl MVP that same year and Cotton Bowl MVP in 1960.

Davis twice won first-team All-American honors at Syracuse, and as a sophomore in 1959 led the team to the NCAA Division I-A national championship. The Orangemen capped off an undefeated season that year with a 23-14 win over Texas in the Cotton Bowl and Davis was nicknamed the “Elmira Express” by sports writer Al Mallette of the Elmira Star-Gazette. (Davis grew up in Elmira, New York.)

When his college career was finished, the Washington Redskins selected him with the first overall pick in the 1962 NFL Draft. The Redskins, however, traded his rights to the Cleveland Browns, who had visions of pairing Davis with another elite running back – the great Jim Brown.

Sadly, Davis would never play a game for the Browns (or any other professional team for that matter) after being diagnosed with leukemia during preparations for the College All-Star Game in 1962. Davis died on May 18, 1963, at the young age of 23.

In honor of Davis, the Browns retired his #45 jersey in 1962, and in 1979 he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. In acknowledgement of both Davis and Brown’s careers, Syracuse University retired the #44 (worn by both players during the respective collegiate careers, as well as another great SU running back, Floyd Little) on Nov. 12, 2005.

A production for a biopic of Davis’ life called “The Express” began shooting in March 2007. Actor Rob Brown is playing Davis, while Dennis Quaid was cast as Davis’ Syracuse coach, Ben Schwartzwalder. Charles Leavitt wrote the screenplay.

Davis on the web

Ernie Davis Wikipedia page
Find a bio, collegiate stats and links to Ernie Davis on

College Football Hall of Fame: Ernie Davis
Check out a member biography and profile on Ernie Davis at his College Football Hall of Fame page.

Heisman Trophy Profile: Ernie Davis
Find information on the year Ernie Davis won the Heisman Trophy award.

News and Commentary

ESPN Classic – Davis won Heisman, respect
Davis never took himself that seriously. He was quiet, a stutterer as a child who improved his speech as demands on his public speaking increased. He remained appreciative of those who helped him on the road to fame. (Read the entire article by clicking the link above.)

The Elmira Express
Ernie Davis was a two-time first-team All-American halfback at Syracuse and the only Syracuse player ever to win the Heisman. He was a graduate of Elmira Free Academy - the only New Yorker ever to win the award. And he was the first black player so honored. (Read the entire article by clicking the link above.)

The Ernie I Knew
I'll never forget Ernie Davis nor will the many other Elmirans who had associations with him. We have memories of a player who gave us sports thrills from Small Fry days through All-America and Heisman Trophy days at Syracuse. They are grand memories, too. (Read the entire article by clicking the link above.)

Even in death, Davis became symbol of hope
My grandmother talked about the day of Davis' funeral, how life seemed to come to a halt in Elmira in a way she hadn't seen since V-E day. Bells rang out across the city both days, but in 1945 there was dancing at the corner of Main and Water. In 1963, there was only a long line of cars inching their way down Church Street and up Walnut Street to that shady corner of Woodlawn. (Read the entire article by clicking the link above.)

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