Ernest Davis, born Dec. 14, 1939, became the first African American athlete to win the Heisman Trophy. The running back played at Syracuse University before being drafted by the Washington Redskins. He also was declared an All-American athlete in 1960 and in 1961, the same year he won the most prestigious title for an American collegiate athlete.

Born in Salem, Penn., to Marie Davis, the Heisman Trophy winner’s father was killed before the youngster took his first breath. Growing up, Davis showed his athleticism by playing with uncles and participating in Small Fry football. He was bigger than most of his opponents, but he never abused his strength. It is said that instead of brutally tackling the other players, he would simply pick up the smaller kids and wait for the whistle to blow, rather than throwing them to the ground.

Davis was also involved in basketball and baseball while he was in high school, but it was football that would usher him into his prosperous future.

Although he played a dangerous sport, people always talked about his gentleness and enthusiastic.

In a Sports Illustrated interview with his Syracuse coach, Ben Schwartzwalde said, “Ernie was just like a puppy dog, friendly and warm and kind … He had that spontaneous goodness about him. He radiated enthusiasm. His enthusiasm rubbed off on the kids. Oh, he’d knock you down, but then he’d run back and pick you up. We never had a kid so thoughtful and polite.”

Despite his critical acclaim, Davis and his fellow Black college teammates endured some harsh racial prejudice, when they played against other teams.

For example, during a game, Syracuse players accused University of Texas players of directing racial slurs at Davis and the other Black team members. By the end of the first half, a brawl broke out.
He was then recruited to the Cleveland Browns for a three-year, $200,000 contract. But he would never play a professional game.

On July 28, 1962, Davis was not playing his normal game and noticed swelling in his neck. He was rushed to hospital where he was diagnosed with acute monocytic leukemia. Despite that, he never showed any sign of despair and always stayed hopeful. After undergoing tests and procedures, Davis went into remission, but his life was still cut short. On May 18, 1963, the 23-year-old passed away.

Despite the tragic end to his life, Davis affected more lives than imaginable. Browns’ owner, Art Modell told Newsline, “He knew he was dying but he never lost his poise. Knowing him taught me a lot about life. You could not know him without suffering for him which was exactly what he didn’t want you to do.”

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