Blast from the Past: The Elmira Express

28 Mar

elmira commuter trainHe was hated for being black and loved for his gentleness.  He was admired for his athletic prowess and respected for his humility and compassion.  Sportswriters called him “The Elmira Express” but he was, as one coach described him, “like a puppy dog, friendly and warm and kind”.

Even on the football field where he was powerful and locomotive-like in blowing up opposing players who attempted to tackle him, he would, after knocking an opponent down, run back and help him up.  “We never had a kid so thoughtful and polite,” his college coach said of him.

ernie davis7The kid in question was Ernie Davis.  In a time when the struggle for civil rights dominated our daily lives and hatred spilled into the streets and into the football fields where Ernie played, he was the first black athlete to be awarded the Heisman Trophy.

Born on Dec. 14, 1939, in New Salem, Pa. Davis grew up in poverty in Uniontown, a coal-mining town 50 miles south of Pittsburgh, where he was raised by caring grandparents.  The honors came early and often, from the time he started with organized sports. He succeeded at every venue, a three-sport standout in high school.

ernie davis13++More than thirty colleges and universities, including football superpowers the University of Michigan and Notre Dame, actively sought to add him to their football programs, but he chose to stay close to home and play for Syracuse.  It was the same school at which his hero, Jim Brown, played and who was instrumental in his recruitment.

While at Syracuse, Davis rushed for 2,386 yards and scored 220 points and in his sophomore year, he guided the Orangemen to their only national football championship.

It was at the end of that campaign, in the Cotton Bowl versus the University of Texas, that tensions flared during the game when Syracuse players accused the Longhorn players of directing racial slurs at one of their black players, and a bench-clearing brawl broke out just before the end of the first half.

ernie davis12

Although Texas managed to get on the board in the second half, Syracuse won the game 23-14. Davis was named player of the game, but when he was informed that he would have to leave the banquet after receiving his MVP award and that he and his two black teammates would not be allowed to attend the dinner, the entire Syracuse team boycotted the event.

It wasn’t the first time Davis had navigated racism, and it wouldn’t be the last. Davis was winning games like the Cotton Bowl amid the struggles of the civil rights movement. It was the era when freedom rides were being organized throughout the South, and Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X were gaining national prominence.

Davis wasn’t a politician himself: He was a shy football player who had overcome a severe stuttering problem in his youth and still suffered from jitters before public speaking engagements. But his achievements spoke louder than words. There’s the story of a white resident of Davis’ hometown who once recalled noticing that his son was “drinking an inordinate amount of chocolate milk.” When the father asked the child why, the young boy replied, “I want to be like Ernie Davis.”

ernie davis1As a senior in 1961, he was awarded the Heisman Trophy and was the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft.  And then, stunningly, he was gone. Struck down by leukemia.

In March 1963, while in remission, Davis wrote an article for The Saturday Evening Post in which he said, “Some people say 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 December 14. In these years I have had more than most people get in a lifetime.”

Two months later, Davis died.

Davis was a coach’s dream: modest, hard working, team-oriented, a sportsman who never put down opponents or teammates. “An excellent practice player. He lapped everyone,” said John Mackey, a Syracuse teammate who later starred in the NFL.

Davis never took himself that seriously. He was quiet, a stutterer as a child who improved his speech as demands on his public speaking increased. He remained appreciative of those who helped him on the road to fame.

Schwartzwalder3 (revised)Friends noticed. Ben Schwartzwalder, his football coach at Syracuse, said, “I never met another human being as good as Ernie.”

In August 1962, as Ernie Davis walked onto the field of Cleveland Municipal Stadium in his Browns uniform for a preseason game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, the five-minute standing ovation from 78,000 fans seemed endless. The appearance of Davis, the first overall pick in that year’s draft, was one of the most eagerly awaited professional debuts in football history.

It was the only time he would dress out for a pro game.

ernie davis5Looking back at the time, all suited up for the Steelers game, his doctors estimated that he had between 6 to 12 months to live. He lived for 9. During that time, though he was too sick to play, he continued suiting up for practice. He never complained.  One of his teammates remembers Davis’ mantra: “Just because I’m dying doesn’t mean I have to give up trying.”
He died in his sleep on May 18, 1963.  He was 23.

The lessons of Ernie Davis’s life resonate, especially today, whenever we read of athletes involved in drug scandals or run-ins with the law. We would do well to remember Ernie and his humanity.  More than an African-American football star in the civil rights era, Davis was “a genuine gentle man…and a gentleman.” That was his legacy, and that is why he still matters today and will in the years to come.




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