A Legend Still Lives

By Kelvin Ang
Updated: October 16, 2007
SYRACUSE, N.Y. — John Brown exchanged quick goodbyes with his close friend Ernie Davis before stepping out of their Cleveland apartment on the morning of May 16, 1963.

The two of them played pickup basketball with many of their Cleveland Browns teammates every Tuesday during the offseason, and one of them had suggested a weekend trip to his hometown of Columbus, Ohio, to challenge some of his old friends there.

A few days before they left, Davis pulled out because he had to make another visit to the hospital. The former Syracuse University football star had been fighting leukemia for more than 10 months, and he occasionally skipped their weekly games when his condition worsened.
But he always returned to the hardwood days later, crashing the boards as usual, and Brown had no doubt this latest trip to the hospital would end the same way.

“Look, I’ll see you when I get back,” Brown recalled saying to Davis as he left that Thursday morning.

When Brown stood in that doorway two days later, Davis was dead.

Only 23 years old and 17 months removed from getting picked first overall in the NFL Draft, Davis lay down that Friday night in Cleveland at Lakeside Hospital and never woke up.

“It took a long time for me to put things together,” Brown said. “You start questioning a lot of things because you don’t understand.

“Why him?”

Indeed, why Davis? To Syracuse football fans, Davis was their All-American hero who helped propel the Orangemen to their first national title in 1959 and became the first black player to win the Heisman Trophy after the 1961 season.

To Floyd Little, who met Davis just once, he was “the epitome of a man’s man.” Davis was the reason why Little, a future NFL star, committed to Syracuse and not any of the other 46 programs that were courting him with scholarships.

And to the people who got to know Davis for any period of time, he was all that and more. Despite finding fame and success, he never lost his down-to-earth demeanor and always had time for his friends.

Throughout his nine-month battle with cancer, he seldom had time to feel sorry for himself and fought the disease with the same gusto he always showed on the football field.

On October 3rd, Universal Studios will release a movie about Davis titled “The Express,” but it remains to be seen if Hollywood’s Davis will captivate audiences as much as Davis did for the people who knew him.

“When I met him, he was the perfect specimen of a man,” Little said. “He was the epitome of the man that you want to be like and how you want your son to be like.”

A force in football By the time Davis got to Syracuse, he already had built up quite a reputation. During his junior and senior seasons at Elmira Free Academy (later renamed Ernie Davis Middle School) in Elmira, N.Y., he earned All-American honors and eventually received more than 30 scholarship offers to carry the ball for programs including Notre Dame and UCLA.

Largely because of the legendary Jim Brown’s influence, Davis committed to Syracuse, where then-head coach Ben Schwartzwalder introduced him to the team as “the next Jim Brown.”

Davis quickly proved why. Freshmen weren’t allowed to play varsity sports back then, but as soon as Davis joined the Orangemen as a sophomore in 1959 — inheriting Brown’s No. 44 jersey along the way — he led the team with 686 rushing yards. Davis averaged an eye-popping seven yards per carry.

SU powered its way to an 11-0 record and the national title, beating Texas in the Cotton Bowl, 23-14. On the third play of the game, Davis reeled off an 87-yard touchdown reception to kickstart the Orangemen.

“He was capable of going all the way any time there was a good block,” said John Brown, who manned one of the offensive tackle positions in front of Davis. “If we had run any (play), I think he would have been successful at it.”

Davis would get even more imposing as the years went by. He began his career as a 195-pound freshman and by the time he left, he had bulked up into a 6-foot-2, 212-pound back. Davis terrorized not just his opponents, but his own teammates who had to tackle him during practice.

“Oh, he’d knock you down, but then he’d run back and pick you up,” Schwartzwalder told Sports Illustrated for a 1989 story. “We never had a kid so thoughtful and polite. Ernie would pat the guys on the back who had tackled him and help them up. And compliment them, ‘Great tackle.’ Even opponents had a kindly feeling for him.”

His junior year, Davis ranked third in the nation with 877 yards and set a Syracuse record with 7.8 yards per carry. He followed that with an 823-yard, 12-touchdown encore his senior year.

Those numbers helped him edge Ohio State fullback Bob Ferguson in the second-closest vote in Heisman Trophy history, making Davis the first black player ever to earn the award.

“It was a correction of the sickness of our society, a prejudiced society that denied people equal opportunities,” said Jim Brown, whom many believe should have won the Heisman himself in 1956.

‘A beautiful kid’ SU’s black students naturally were ecstatic about Davis’ accomplishment, but he already had been an intensely popular figure on campus before that. Fullback Pete Brokaw and John Brown lived next door to Davis in Marion Hall their sophomore year, and then in Sadler Hall their last two years, and Brokaw got the chance to walk to class across the Quad with Davis many times.

“Everybody would say hello,” Brokaw said. “He always walked tall and was generous and kind to anybody who would stop him.”

That fame and attention never got to Davis’ head, according to friends. He continued to invite his roommate John Mackey and Brown back to his home in Elmira to have lunch on Sundays with his mother.

And when Nat King Cole and Chubby Checker — whose hit song “The Twist” got Americans on their feet dancing — each came to Syracuse and requested to meet Davis, he would not go see them without taking Brown along.

Roland Coleman, who first met Davis when he was 12 years old and later coached a traveling basketball team Davis played on while at Syracuse, said people in Elmira asked him all the time about Davis.

Shortly after Davis won the Heisman in 1961, one of Coleman’s friends, Dan Pickering, asked Coleman if he could get Davis to sign a football for his son. Coleman said he would do one better — he would set up a meeting between Davis and Pickering’s son.

“You’ve got a lot of bullshit; you’re not going to bring an All-American into town,” Coleman recalled Pickering saying. “I said, ‘You don’t know Ernie.’” Imagine Pickering’s surprise when Davis showed up at his doorstep weeks later and, not only that, stayed for two and a half hours. Pickering was so delighted that he kept feeding Davis and entertained them all by playing the piano.

Years later, Coleman bumped into Pickering’s son, Dan Jr., who still remembered what his father said as Davis left that day: “Father told me, he said, ‘That’s a beautiful kid.’” Racism Davis did have one quality to which some people didn’t take too kindly – his skin color. This was, after all, the 1960s.

In an incident not atypical of the times, the Syracuse football team made reservations at the Hilton Hotel in downtown Dallas before the 1960 Cotton Bowl only to realize when they arrived that the hotel refused to accommodate black players.

The team had to move to a “second- or third-rate hotel” in north Dallas “way out in the middle of nowhere,” according to Brokaw. And even then, the black players like Davis, Mackey and John Brown were forced to stay in sub-standard rooms near the hotel kitchen.

Things didn’t get better after the game. Davis won the Cotton Bowl’s MVP honors but wasn’t allowed to stay for the entire dinner banquet. Accounts vary about what happened that night, but Brown said the black players were allowed to eat dinner and then were quickly escorted out by local Negro Chamber of Commerce representatives.
The rest of the team then walked out in protest.

“There were people who didn’t want you there,” Brown said. “We would be disappointed, and we would be angry. You wouldn’t be human if you weren’t angry.”

Davis didn’t encounter racism only in the South, either. Davis and Brown played on Coleman’s traveling basketball team after football season ended each year, and they were making their way in between games from central Pennsylvania to Richmond, Va., in 1962 when they faced another ugly incident.

They stopped at a diner along Route 42 near York, Pa., hoping to grab breakfast when the manager refused to let them enter.

All three of them were outraged, but Coleman and Brown felt especially incredulous that the diner would refuse entry to Davis. Just months earlier, he had won the Heisman and, on his trip to New York to collect the award, he had dined with President John F. Kennedy.

“I went to the manager and said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding,’” Coleman said. “He’s had coffee with President Kennedy, and he can’t eat at this raggedy-ass place.”

Davis had overcome his childhood problem of stuttering, but whenever he got upset, his stuttering returned. It struck him pretty badly on this occasion, Brown said.

But Davis never dwelled on these incidents. His mother, Marie Fleming, has declined most interview requests since the production of “The Express” began, but she did say her son dealt with racist encounters in a stoic fashion.

“His close black friends and his roommate, they told me more after Ernie got out of school than I knew while he was in school,” Fleming said. “Ernie would say little things, but he never said very much about what was going on.”

The illness Despite the occasional hiccup, things looked bright for Davis as the 1962 NFL season approached. The Washington Redskins selected Davis as the No. 1 overall pick in the December 1961 Draft before trading him to Cleveland and re-uniting him with NFL rushing king and fellow SU alumnus, Jim Brown.

They were going to be the greatest backfield in history.

And then tragedy struck.

While training for the Coaches All-Star Game in Buffalo in June 1962, Davis suddenly came down with canker sores in his mouth one night, prompting his old friend and fellow Cleveland rookie John Brown to tease him about them. Davis then turned in a sluggish performance at the exhibition and told Brown afterward, “Man, John, I am awfully tired.”

Soon after that, they parted ways, Davis heading to Chicago for the College All-Star Game and Brown heading to NFL training camp. Days before the game, Davis discovered swelling in his neck and was admitted to Evanston (Ill.) Hospital.

The diagnosis: acute monocytic leukemia.

Browns owner Art Modell immediately flew Davis back to Cleveland and admitted him at Marymount Hospital, but the latest test results only confirmed the previous ones — Davis was fighting for his life.

John and Jim Brown visited Davis at Marymount on the night of August 3, 1962, where they caught the College All-Star Game together on television.

“He did the best that he could do to not lean on anyone or make excuses,” Jim Brown said. “He was just trying to deal with his sickness as a man with a lot of courage.”

After a round of chemotherapy and a few months in and out of hospitals, the cancer went into remission, and Davis moved back into the apartment he shared with John Brown.

Modell’s doctor gave Davis the green light to play football as long as the cancer was in remission, but Browns head coach Paul Brown decided not to let Davis suit up, under the advice of team doctors.

That tortured Davis. Some days, he showed up at practice and ran plays with the team. Other times, he would grill John Brown as soon as he got home from practice, itching to find out the new plays his roommate had learned that day.

“If you wanted to see a person that was crying within, I think that was Ernie,” Brown said. “You could see that it was hurting him that he could not play.”

Perhaps the team doctors were right. The cancer would appear to retreat, only to attack again without warning. Brown would know his roommate was suffering from another episode whenever he got home and found blood stains on Davis’ bath towels and on the bathroom floors, the product of his bleeding gums.

But Davis seldom felt sorry for himself, nor would he allow others to feel sorry for him. Whenever he had to make another stay in the hospital, he instructed Brown to tell everyone he had traveled out of town for a speaking engagement.

Coleman said stories filtered to Elmira about how Davis would carry a blue duffel bag on each visit to the hospital, but he reassured everyone who asked that he was headed just to the Laundromat.

Davis wrote an article in a March 1963 issue of Saturday Evening Post, in which he said, “Some people say that 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.”

His death Davis continued shifting in and out of hospitals, but all John Brown ever heard about those trips was how the doctors kept telling Davis they were close to finding a cure. They were close to perfecting this technique called the bone marrow transplant.

And so when Davis pulled out of their pick-up basketball game in Columbus because he needed to go to the hospital again, it was nothing out of the ordinary for Brown.

The only thing that seemed strange was that Davis went to Modell’s office to inform him he was once more returning to the hospital and to apologize for racking up medical bills.

Modell wondered why Davis had not simply called to let him know, but he later realized Davis was saying goodbye.

On Thursday, May 16, 1963, Davis checked into Lakeside Hospital, where he fell into a coma the following night. At 2 a.m. Saturday morning, he passed away.

“I often wish that I could have been there with him more,” his mother, Fleming, said. “He was more or less putting on a brave front with everybody.”

Thousands of people lined the streets of Elmira for his funeral, including about 30 Browns players and staff members. President Kennedy sent a telegram, and the Browns retired Davis’ jersey No. 45, even though he never once wore it in a game.

That was 45 years ago.

Today, Little still has pictures of Davis and him scrolling every 15 seconds as his computer screensaver. John Brown keeps a picture of the original Ernie on his wall at home. He named his youngest son Ernie.

The gash Davis’ death left in their hearts also has proven hard to forget.

“Do you ever?” Brown said. “It’s always a part of my life. Especially when you get older and older, you think about things that transpired when you were younger. You have periods when you’re sitting around and not moping, but you sit around trying to put things together.

“Ernie’s been a part of my life forever.”