‘Winning the Heisman Trophy is something you just dream about. You never think it could happen to you’
Ernie Davis, a two-time All-American halfback at Syracuse University, lived a short life as a result of leukemia. He died at age 23 in 1963, but managed to lead his high school basketball team to a 52-game winning streak, help Syracuse win its only national football title and become the No. 1 pick in the 1961 NFL draft.
On Dec. 6, 1961, he became the first African-American to win the prestigious Heisman Trophy.
Coming out of high school, Davis had his pick of schools to attend, but Syracuse — a school only 90 miles away from his home — stood above the fray. From 1954 to 1956, the Orangemen boasted Jim Brown, who starred for Syracuse at halfback and went on to become a legend for the Cleveland Browns.
“I wanted to play in the big-time,” Davis said, “and a lot of people, including Jim Brown, persuaded me that I’d have better opportunities there.”
Davis led the freshman team to its first unbeaten season and did so as the lone black player on the team. Many had him pegged as the “next Jim Brown,” and Davis even wore Brown’s No. 44 during his sophomore campaign, in which he led the team in yards (686), yards per carry (7), and scored eight rushing touchdowns (10 total).
Syracuse bullied other teams, outscoring opponents 390-59, and topped off its 10-0 season with a 23-14 win against Texas in the Cotton Bowl. Even though Davis was hampered by a strained hamstring, he still managed two scores, hauled in a Cotton-Bowl-record 87-yard catch. His efforts were rewarded when he was named the game’s MVP.
The caveat to Davis receiving the award was that he wouldn’t be allowed to attend the awards banquet — that was for only white players. After dinner, Davis and his black Syracuse teammates were asked to leave.
“There was a lot of growth in him,” Brown told NFL.com. “He had to deal with things on the team and in school and his private life, and he was able to do that. People tried to make him into a character they wanted him to be, but it wasn’t in his personality. He had to learn a lot on just functioning and being able to perform at his highest level. He had to look out for teammates, understand for the coach. The coach wasn’t identifying what’s going on in his life outside of football, so he had to know when to step up and when not to step up. All those decisions were put on an individual who was considered the star.
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