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Ernest Davis (December 14, 1939 – May 18, 1963) was an American football running back and the first African-American athlete to win the Heisman Trophy. Wearing number 44, Davis competed collegiately for Syracuse Universitymarker before being drafted by the Washington Redskins, then almost immediately traded to the Cleveland Browns in December 1961. However, he would never play a professional game after being diagnosed with leukemia in 1962.He is the subject of the 2008 Universal Pictures movie biography The Express, based on the non-fiction book Ernie Davis: The Elmira Express, by Robert C. Gallagher.

Early life

Davis was born in New Salem, Pennsylvaniamarker, and spent his early life in the Pittsburgh Coalfield, moving to industrial Uniontown, Pennsylvaniamarker, both in the metro Pittsburghmarker area. His parents separated shortly before his father died in an accident, and he was raised by his grandparents until age 12, when he moved with his mother and new stepfather to Elmira, New Yorkmarker. He played in Elmira's Small Fry Football League for the Superior Buicks and was named a Small Fry All-Star in both 1952 and 1953. He played basketball in grade school as well, also being chosen as an All-Star player.

Throughout his high school years at Elmira Free Academymarker, Davis' talent on the football field became clear. He was named Elmira Player of the Year and high school All-American in both his junior and senior years. He also showed great athletic prowess in varsity basketball and baseball, all while excelling academically.

At a time when many universities were not offering scholarships to black athletes, colleges from around the country watched Davis' high school career closely, and more than 50 offered him scholarships.

College career

Davis played football for Syracuse Universitymarker, and went on to gain national fame for three seasons (1959-1961), twice winning first-team All-American honors. As a sophomore in 1959, Davis led Syracuse to the NCAA Division I-A national football championship, capping an undefeated season with a 23-14 win over The University of Texas in the Cotton Bowl Classic. That same year, Elmira Star-Gazette sports writer Al Mallette coined the nickname for Davis, the "Elmira Express". Davis was voted Most Valuable Player of the 1960 Cotton Bowl Classic and the 1961 Liberty Bowl. In his junior year, he set a record of 7.8 yards per carry and was the third leading rusher in the country with 877 yards, having rushed 100 yards in 6 of 9 games.

Davis found racism prevalent in the American South during his Cotton Bowl Classic visit. Author Jocelyn Selim writes that at the banquet following the 1960 game, Davis was told he could only accept his award and then would be required to leave the segregated facility. Davis refused and his teammates, nearly all of them white, boycotted the banquet.

A different account of the banquet is given by John Brown. He was Davis' teammate at Syracuse and on the Cleveland Browns, his roommate and a close friend. According to an article in the Houston Chronicle, all the players from the game attended the banquet. Brown recalls that the teams sat on opposite sides of the room. After everyone ate and the trophies were handed out, the three black Syracuse players, including Brown and Davis were asked to leave and were taken to another party in Dallas by local NAACP representatives. One Syracuse player, Ger Schwedes, recommended that the whole Syracuse team leave the banquet to show solidarity with their black teammates, but the suggestion was overruled by Syracuse officials. When the Chronicle asked Brown "whether the film is a truthful portrayal of his friend, Brown said... in short, no."

Davis became the first black athlete to be awarded the Heisman Trophy, following his 1961 senior-year season at Syracuse University. President John F. Kennedy had followed Davis' career and requested to meet him while he was in New York to receive the trophy. Later in 1963, when Elmira chose February 3 to celebrate Davis' achievements, Kennedy sent a telegram, reading:

During his time at Syracuse, Davis wore the same number, 44, as legendary Orangemanmarker Jim Brown, helping to establish a tradition at the school that was acknowledged on November 12, 2005, when the school retired the number in an on-field ceremony. Davis also played basketball at Syracuse for one season 1960-1961.

While attending Syracuse, Davis was a member of the Sigma Alpha Mu Fraternity, a nationally recognized Jewish fraternity. Davis was the first African-American to become part of the organization not only at the Syracuse chapter, but for the national fraternity as a whole.

Davis was inducted into the College Football Hall of Famemarker in 1979.

Ernie Davis was a member of The Pigskin Club of Washington, D.C. National Intercollegiate All-American Football Players Honor Roll.

Pro football career

Davis was the number-one pick in the 1962 NFL Draft, becoming the first African American football player to be taken first overall. Selected by the Washington Redskins, his rights were then traded to the Cleveland Browns for Bobby Mitchell and a first-round draft choice. He was also drafted by the Buffalo Bills of the American Football League.

Davis signed a three-year, $200,000 contract with the Browns in late December 1961 while he was in San Francisco, Californiamarker practicing for the East-West Shrine Game. Originally reported at $80,000, the contract, according to Davis' attorney, A. William (Tony) DeFilippo, consisted of $80,000 for playing football, including a $15,000 signing bonus; $60,000 for ancillary rights, such as image marketing; and $60,000 for off-season employment. It was the most lucrative contract for an NFL rookie up to that time. However, the Browns' dream of pairing Davis with Jim Brown in the backfield took a tragic turn when Davis was diagnosed with leukemia during preparations for the 1962 College All-Star Game.

Davis never played a game as a professional, with his only appearance at Cleveland Stadiummarker coming during a 1962 pre-season game, in which he ran onto the field as a spotlight followed him. Following his death, the Browns retired his number 45 jersey..


In the summer of 1962, Davis was diagnosed with acute monocytic leukemia and began receiving medical treatment. The disease was incurable and he died in Cleveland Lakeside Hospital May 18, 1963, at the age of 23. Both the House and the Senate of the United States Congress eulogized him, and a wake was held at The Neighborhood House in Elmira, New Yorkmarker, where more than 10,000 mourners paid their respects. Davis is buried at Woodlawn Cemeterymarker, Elmira, Chemung Countymarker, New York, in the same cemetery in which Mark Twain is buried. His commemorative statue stands in front of Ernie Davis Middle School, which Davis attended as Elmira Free Academy during his high school years. The building was named in his honor after its conversion to a middle school.

The Express

A motion picture biography, The Express, directed by Gary Fleder and based on the non-fiction book The Elmira Express: the Story of Ernie Davis by Robert C. Gallagher, began production in April 2007 and was released on October 10, 2008.Rob Brown plays Davis, with Dennis Quaid portraying Davis' Syracuse Universitymarker coach, Ben Schwartzwalder.


  1. Carter, Bob, "Davis won Heisman, respect", (no date)
  2. "Ernie Davis: The Elmira Express - City of Elmira official site
  3. Selim Jocelyn, "Ernie Davis' Last Down", CR Magazine, Spring 2008
  4. Barron, David, "Film The Express stretches the truth", Houston Chronicle, October 9, 2008
  5. Wyche, Steve, "Ernie Davis' legacy lives on long after his death",, October 9, 2008
  6. "Centennial Spotlight", Sigma Alpha Mu Foundation website
  7. 1962 Draft
  8. "The Browns Break Through", Sports Illustrated, September 10, 1962
  9. Rockin’ the Rockpile: The Buffalo Bills of the American Football League, p.564, Jeffrey J. Miller, ECW Press, 2007, ISBN 978-1-55022-797-0
  10. Neuman, Roger, "Pro contract was rookie record", Elmira Star-Gazette, December 8, 2001
  11. King, Steve, "A tragic off season", Official Website of the Cleveland Browns, December 19, 2006
  12. "The Express’ to Film Scenes on Campus Next Week; Extras Needed",


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