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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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Davis refused to receive the award, and his entire team agreed to boycott the banquet.
A man of firsts, Davis was the first African-American man to win the Heisman Trophy, the first to join the prestigious Sigma Alpha Mu fraternity (a nationally recognized fraternity that was initially all-Jewish) and, in 1962, the first African-American player to be picked first overall in the NFL draft.
Although the details are somewhat disputed, Davis' contract was considered to be the most lucrative ever offered to an NFL rookie. His teammates and supporters looked forward to seeing the 6-foot-2, 210-pound Davis sharing the backfield with Brown, breaking countless records and leading the Cleveland Browns to a decade of victorious seasons.
Those seasons would never come, however, as Davis was diagnosed with acute monocytic leukemia during preparations for the 1962 College All Star Game. Treatment began immediately, and Davis was optimistic that he would recover from his condition. When the cancer went into remission that fall, it seemed only a matter of time before he made his pro debut, but Cleveland coach Paul Brown feared for Davis' health and kept him on the sidelines. The disease would prove incurable, and Davis died on May 18, 1963, having never played a professional football game.
Both the House and the Senate eulogized him, and his wake was held in The Neighborhood House in Elmira, New York, where more than 10,000 mourners paid their respects.
Davis' character and his athletic accomplishments caught the eye of John F. Kennedy, who had followed his college career. They finally had the chance to shake hands and talk when Davis was in New York to accept the Heisman Trophy in December 1961, an encounter that thrilled the young football star.
In 1963, when he heard Davis would be honored by his high school with a school holiday, the president sent a telegram reading: "Seldom has an athlete been more deserving of such a tribute. 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 he never played a game with the Browns, Davis' No. 45 was retired by the team shortly after his death. He was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1979, and in 2005 the Syracuse football team retired No. 44, which had been worn by star halfbacks Davis, Brown and Floyd Little.
Today, Davis is remembered for his sportsmanship, the grace with which he handled the racial intolerance of his time, and his courage in facing a disease that ultimately claimed his life.
The 2008 Universal Pictures film "The Express," based on the nonfiction book Ernie Davis: The Elmira Express, by Robert C. Gallagher, helped keep Davis' memory alive by exposing new generations of fans to his story.
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