Following in the footsteps of the greatest running back ever is a lofty aspiration. Ernie Davis wanted nothing else. His hero, Jim Brown persuaded him to come to Syracuse in 1958, two years after Brown left SU as the most decorated player in program history.
“I told him it wouldn’t be a cakewalk because we’re still breaking down barriers,” Brown said, “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.”
Davis started on the freshman team, which would go unbeaten for the first time ever. He was the only black player on the team.
When it was time to play varsity as a sophomore, Davis donned Brown’s #44 proudly. He was quickly billed as “the next Jim Brown,” and after three seasons he would use his uncanny balance and speed to break most of Brown’s rushing records, including total yards with 2,386.
“He was like my clone,” Jim Brown told NFL Network, “We were like twins. He had everything”
Davis’ first year with varsity will be remembered forever. The Orange went 10-0 and beat the University of Texas in the Cotton Bowl, 23-14. It remains SU’s only national championship. Davis took a pass 87 yards to the house in that game; at the time, it was the longest in TD reception in bowl history. That was one of his two scores on the day, and it earned him MVP honors. He was not allowed to attend the awards banquet because he was black.
“He was the star, but he was black,” Jim Brown told The Undefeated, “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.”
After another productive junior campaign, Davis capped off his Syracuse career in a way no other football player has. In 1961, he became the first black player to win the Heisman Trophy for the nation’s most outstanding player. When Davis traveled to New York to accept the award, President John F. Kennedy happened to be in the area and wished to meet the fabled running back.
“I never thought I’d get the honor of shaking hands with him,” Davis said.
With his college career in the rear-view, Davis was the prize of the 1962 NFL draft, going first overall to the Washington Football Team, who traded him to the Browns.
In July of that year, Davis noticed bleeding from his nose and gums and swelling in his neck. He was diagnosed with Leukemia. Davis fought the cancer with fervor, achieving remission at one point and rejoining the Browns for football practice, but ultimately he would never play an NFL snap.
Davis died in May of 1963, at the age of 23.
“Ernie Davis didn’t die at a young age,” said John Brown, his teammate at Syracuse, “he lived at a young age.”
Davis had already helped recruit Floyd Little to Syracuse. Little would also wear #44, a number that has been hanging in the Carrier Dome rafters since 2005.
The Browns retired #45, the number Davis was preparing to wear as a pro, shortly after he passed.
He was, by all accounts, as great a man as he was a football player. He broke new ground for black athletes during one of the most racially charged period in American history. He was destined to do so much more.
Before Davis died, he wrote some final words for The Saturday Evening Post. Ernie, take us home.
Some people say I am unlucky. I don’t believe it. And I don’t want to sound as if I am particularly brave or unusual. Sometimes I still get down, and sometimes I feel sorry for myself. Nobody is just one thing all the time.
But when I look back, I can’t call myself unlucky. My 23rd birthday was Dec. 14. In these years I have had more than most people get in a lifetime.