Davis, Ernie (Football Player)

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davis_ernie_300x300Ernest “Ernie” Davis (December 14, 1939 – May 18, 1963) was an American football running back and the first African-American athlete to win the Heisman Trophy. Wearing number 45, Davis competed collegiately for Syracuse University before being drafted by the Washington Redskins, then almost immediately traded to the Cleveland Browns in December 1961. However, he would never play a professional game, as he was diagnosed with leukemia in 1962. He is the subject of the 2008 Universal Pictures movie biography The Express, based on the non-fiction book Ernie Davis: The Elmira Express, by Robert C. Gallagher.

In the summer of 1962, Davis was diagnosed with acute monocytic leukemia and began receiving medical treatment. The disease was incurable and he died in Cleveland Lakeside Hospital May 18, 1963, at the age of 23. Ernie went to Johns Hopkins when he was dying, three months after being diagnosed and through chemical treatments experienced a 4-5 month remission. That was the time that the controversy between Paul Brown and Art Modell took place. Both the House and the Senate of the United States Congress eulogized Davis, and a wake was held at The Neighborhood House in Elmira, New York, where more than 10,000 mourners paid their respects. During the funeral, a message was received from President Kennedy, and was read aloud to all of the people attending the service. Davis is buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in Elmira, New York, the same cemetery in which Mark Twain is buried. His commemorative statue stands in front of Ernie Davis Middle School, which Davis attended as Elmira Free Academy during his high school years.

The building was named in his honor after its conversion to a middle school. Another statue of Davis stands on the campus of Syracuse University, near the steps of Hendricks Chapel and the Quad where pre-game pep rallies are held. He was elected to the college football hall of fame in the Fall of 2008, coinciding with the premiere of The Express and the beginning of construction of Ernie Davis Hall, a dorm on the Syracuse campus.

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