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Ernie Davis became the first African-American to win the Heisman Trophy before his life was tragically cut short by leukemia at the age of 23.
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A three-time All-American halfback and 1961 Heisman Trophy winner, Ernie Davis led Syracuse University to the national championship as a sophomore and was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1979. He was the first African-American man to win the Heisman Trophy and to be picked first overall in the NFL draft, but he never played a pro game and died at 23 after contracting leukemia.
"Someplace along the line you have to come to an understanding with yourself, and I had reached mine a long time before, when I was still in the hospital. Either you fight or you give up."
Ernest R. Davis was born on December 14, 1939, in New Salem, Pennsylvania. He was the first African-American man to win the Heisman Trophy and the first black athlete to be chosen first overall in the NFL Draft.
Davis never knew his father, who died shortly after he was born, and was given to the care of his maternal grandparents when he was 14 months old. Money was tight in their Uniontown, Pennsylvania, household, and Davis suffered from a bad stuttering problem, but he nevertheless received adequate care, and later credited those difficult early years with installing in him the virtues of discipline and family.
Davis went to live with his mother and stepfather in Elmira, New York, when he was 12, and soon proved an athletic prodigy. He played baseball, basketball and football at Elmira Free Academy, earning high school All-American honors in the latter two sports. Davis led the school's basketball team to 52 consecutive victories, and some felt his natural gifts were best suited for the hardwood. However, Davis' first love was football. He was heavily recruited by some of college football's top programs, but was swayed by NFL great Jim Brown, who convinced Davis that Syracuse University, Brown's alma mater, would be a welcoming place for a young black athlete.
Davis didn't play during his freshman season at Syracuse, as was the rule at the time, though he dominated practices with his speed and power. He compiled 686 yards on 98 carries and 10 touchdowns as a sophomore, earning the nickname "The Elmira Express" and the first of three All-America selections. Although he pulled a hamstring shortly before the Cotton Bowl on New Year's Day in 1960, Davis scored two touchdowns to help beat the University of Texas, 23-14, cementing an undefeated campaign and the national championship for the Orangemen.
Davis rang up 877 rushing yards on an outstanding 7.8 yards per carry during the 1960 season, and followed with another 823 rushing yards in 1961 to win the Heisman Trophy as the nation's top player. Davis capped his college career with 140 rushing yards in an MVP performance at the 1961 Liberty Bowl, and finished with 2,386 total rushing yards on 6.6 yards per carry and 35 touchdowns, all school records.
Davis' honors and accomplishments on the gridiron were matched only by the adversity he faced off the field; as a black athlete playing many games in the South, he was the victim of racism on several occasions. The most publicized incident occurred when he was selected as the Cotton Bowl MVP in 1960. Davis was told by organizers that he would be allowed to accept his award at the post-game banquet, and would immediately have to leave the segregated facility.
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