I wasn’t there in person but I know you couldn’t escape the talk about LeBron James and Johnny Manziel if you were in Cleveland for the National this year. The hype machine is off the charts but back in the early 1960’s, Cleveland was about to go crazy over a second brilliant running back they had fallen into just a few years after the arrival of Jim Brown.
Sadly, he never played in a regular season game for them. In 1971, the great Brian’s Song made for TV movie was released but this man’s life story was not put into film for nearly another four decades and yet in some ways, his story is even more inspirational then the Brian Piccolo/Gale Sayers friendship originally discussed in “I am Third” which was Gale Sayers’ autobiography.
Yes, we are talking about Ernie Davis. who was the second in the one-time seemingly endless line of great running backs who attended Syracuse University. The first was Jim Brown and Davis was set up to team up with, and possibly in a few years, supplant Brown as Cleveland’s featured back. With a dream backfield seemingly in place, it was a great time to be a Browns fan.
Davis had already gained fame as being the first African-American to win the 1961 Heisman trophy (many people believe Brown should have bested Paul Hornung in 1956 considering Notre Dame’s 2-7 record). In addition, Davis and his teammates helped to integrate the Cotton Bowl football game when Syracuse traveled down to Dallas at the end of the 1959 season. After being told he could accept his award but have to leave the segregated facility immediately afterward, Davis refused to accept and his teammates joined him in boycotting the ceremony.
He would play brilliantly for two more years and was the first overall pick in the NFL Draft following the 1961 season.
In a very short time, Davis had already been involved in helping to integrate an important bowl game in the deep (he was the game’s MVP) and was the first African-American draft pick of the Washington Redskins. He did not want to play for Washington owner George Preston Marshall and was shortly thereafter traded to Cleveland for future Hall of Famer Bobby Mitchell.
Having become well-known for his character during his time at Syracuse, Davis received a telegram from President Kennedy early in 1963, reading:
“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.”
Although Davis’ life would end tragically at age 23—just months after the trade—when he was diagnosed and then died of leukemia, he did make it onto a couple of football cards.
The first is a 1961 Nu-Card Football Stars, which is among the key cards in the set.
And yes, even more than 50 years after his passing, Davis items are still popular both in the Cleveland area and throughout the rest of the country. Because of how he lived his short life, he is still a beloved figure to this very day.