Looking back at ‘The Express’

By Tony McClean, BASN Editor In Chief
Updated: November 23, 2004

NEW HAVEN, Ct. – For those of you who didn’t get a chance to see the 2008 movie, “The Express”, starring Rob Brown and Dennis Quaid, you missed out on a rarity — a good sports movie.

The movie highlights the life of Syracuse standout running back Ernie Davis. In 1961, the “Elmira Express” became the first black player to win college football’s most coveted award.

Davis, born on December 14, 1939, spent part of his boyhood years in Uniontown, Pennsylvania where he lived with his grandparents until relocating to Elmira N.Y. to permanently live with his mother and stepfather.

Ernie’s talent in sports bloomed early.

In Uniontown, where sports were everything, Ernie excelled at every sport he played. Davis moved to Elmira at the age of 12 becoming a favorite son both as an outstanding athlete and as a respected and well-loved citizen.

Davis attended Elmira Free Academy and was first team All-Southern Tier Conference in football, basketball, and baseball.

He was selected as Elmira Player of the Year and high school All-American in his junior and senior years. Davis also excelled in the classroom. Colleges coast to coast closely watched Ernie’s athletic ability.

Scholarship offers came from over 50 including Notre Dame, Air Force, and UCLA. 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.

Davis chose Syracuse University; the school enjoyed its greatest football success while Davis played for them. The team’s record was 24-5 plus two bowl victories.

It was Davis’ performance against the University of Pittsburgh that year which inspired the nickname “The Elmira Express.” Elmira Star-Gazette sports writer Al Mallette coined the phrase.

In his senior year (1961), Davis’ winning of the Heisman Trophy was historical and unprecedented. He was the first Black athlete to win the esteemed award. Davis was the No. 1 overall pick in the 1962 NFL 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’s Buffalo Bills had offered him.

However, it was reported that he picked the Browns because they were part of the more established NFL, plus because of Coach Modell and player Jim Brown. Davis’ hometown held “Elmira Salutes Ernie Davis Day” on 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.

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.”

Tragically, Davis was diagnosed with acute monotypic leukemia on 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 No. 45, worn only in practice.

Both houses of U.S. Congress eulogized Davis. In Elmira, more than 10,000 citizens passed the neighborhood house where he lay in state. All flags in the city were flown at half-mast.

He was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery.

NOTE: The African-American Registry contributed to this story.