First African American Heisman Trophy Winner

(Story and photos courtesy of 'The City of Elmira' Website)

Ernie Davis moved to Elmira, New York at the age of 12. He went on to become Elmira's favorite son both as an outstanding athlete and as a respected and well-loved citizen.Ernie was born on December 14, 1939 in New Salem, Pennsylvania. He soon moved to Uniontown, PA where he lived with his grandparents until relocating to Elmira to permanently live with his mother and step-father.Ernie's talent in sports bloomed early. In Uniontown, where sports were everything, Ernie excelled at every sport he played.He played for the Superior Buick team in Elmira's Small Fry Football League and was chosen as a Small Fry All-star in 1952 and 1953. He played basketball at the Neighborhood House and was a grade school all-star.

Ernie's prowess in sports further developed in high school at Elmira Free Academy. They chose Ernie first team All-Southern Tier Conference in all three varsity seasons - football, basketball, and baseball. He was selected as Elmira Player of the Year and high school All-American in his junior and senior years. Ernie also excelled in the classroom.Ernie's athletic ability was closely watched by colleges coast to coast. Scholarship offers came from over 50 schools, including Notre Dame, Air Force, and UCLA.It is important today to remember this accomplishment in relation to the times. Recruiting in 1958 was not as sophisticated as it is today. Plus, many colleges, particularly those in the South, did not offer scholarships to black players.Fortunately for Syracuse University, Ernie chose to stay close to home. Syracuse University enjoyed its greatest football success while Ernie played for them. The team's record was 24-5 plus two bowl victories.Ernie's accomplishments are notable during his college career

He became eligible for the varsity squad in his sophomore year. The season ended with Syracuse earning its first national championship and Ernie led Syracuse to its first bowl victory, for which he was voted the game's most valuable player.It was Ernie's performance against the University of Pittsburgh that year which inspired the nickname "The Elmira Express." The phrase was coined by Elmira Star-Gazette sports writer Al Mallette.

During his junior year, Ernie set a record of 7.8 yards per carry average and was the third leading rusher in the nation with 877 yards. He rushed for over 100 yards in 6 of 9 games and was named All-American. Winning the Heisman Trophy is a significant accomplishment regardless of the year or player. However, in 1961, Ernie Davis' receipt of the esteemed award was historical and unprecedented. He was the first black athlete to win the Heisman Trophy.

Ernie was the number one pick for the 1962 National Football League draft following his senior year. He signed with the Cleveland Browns to a three-year no-cut, no-trade $65,000 contract with a $15,000 signing bonus - setting a new record for a rookie. This was less money than the AFL Buffalo Bills had offered him. However, it was reported that Ernie picked the Browns because they were part of the more established NFL, and because of Coach Modell and player Jim Brown.To celebrate Ernie's success and to honor him, Ernie's hometown held "Elmira Salutes Ernie Davis Day" on Saturday, February 3, 1962. Special guests included: NY Governor Nelson Rockefeller, Jim Brown, Art Modell, and Ben Schwartzwalder. The community gave him a brand new 1962 Thunderbird convertible.And President John F. Kennedy sent the following telegram:
"Seldom has an athlete been more deserving of such a tribute. Your high standards of performance on the field and off the field, reflect the finest qualities of competition, sportsmanship and citizenship. The nation has bestowed upon you its highest awards for your athletic achievements. It's a privilege for me to address you tonight as an outstanding American, and as a worthy example of our youth. I salute you."
Ernie was diagnosed with acute monocytic leukemia on Monday, July 30, 1962. He died on Saturday, May 18, 1963 and was mourned by the nation.Though Ernie never played a game for the Cleveland Browns, they retired his number 45, worn only in practice.Both houses of US Congress eulogized Ernie.


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