Tom Brady is retiring. Hooray for Tom Brady and other NFL greats like Ben Roethlisberger – wonderful Ben. They persevered in a game of hard knocks and concussions. Here’s hoping they live a long active life after the NFL. I hope they can get out of bed in the morning when they turn 60.
Ernie Davis never had the chance to experience what Brady and the others went through. A great college, he may have failed professionally. Who knows?
Chances are you’ve never heard of Ernie Davis. He died in 1963. He was a 23-year-old black boy. He was from Uniontown.
But maybe you have heard of him. They made a movie about Davis’ life in 2008 called “The Express.” It was a very bad movie. Well, maybe not bad. Just inaccurate. At least that’s what some of his Syracuse University teammates have said. They especially didn’t like the way the movie portrayed their trainer Ben Schwarzwalder.
If you’re from Uniontown, you might not like it either. The film opens with Davis, around the age of 10, confronted by white punks harassing him, using the n-word. They want to beat him, if they can catch him. Of course, Ernie exceeds them. He is a future All American and Heisman Trophy running back, after all.
Whether or not the incident is true or just Hollywood fantasy is hard to say. The year depicted is 1949. At that time, the Uniontown State Theater was segregated—blacks were relegated to the balcony—and the Shady Grove pool was off-limits altogether. Changes would not occur until the 1960s, during the civil rights era.
(As a child of the 1950s, my fuzzy memory is that blacks in Uniontown did one of two jobs. The men picked up the trash and the women operated the elevators in the downtown department stores. As for the State Theater, I was vaguely aware that “Peanut Heaven” was where the black children sat. I should point out that I was oblivious to the fact that black people were banned from the “public” swimming pools of my youth, until the beginning of the protests that ended the practice.)
Ernie lived in Uniontown with his grandparents until age 11 when he moved to Elmira, NY to be with his mother. He was nicknamed “Elmira Express” in college. He is buried in Elmira.
Two months before his death from leukemia, an article appeared under his name in The Saturday Evening Post, one of many mass-circulation magazines of the time.
The title of the article is “I am not unlucky”. In it, Davis recounts his “first big disappointment”: seeing his Midget League baseball team in Uniontown marching past on opening day without him. “There was a confusion in the distribution of uniforms.” He didn’t have any. He tried not to cry. “I still remember how I felt. Nothing seemed more important to us than succeeding in athletics.
At the beginning of the article, a stranger asks Davis if he is Ernie Davis. Not wanting to make a fuss, he says no. The stranger then said, “You’re in luck…Ernie Davis has leukemia.” He will not live six months.
In New York to receive the Heisman Trophy for the best college football player in the country in 1961, he met President Kennedy, at his request. Ernie Davis was a national celebrity. At his funeral in May 1963, a telegram from the President was read in which Kennedy expressed hope that Davis would continue to inspire Americans in death as he had done in life.
Drafted out of college by Washington, Davis was traded to the Cleveland Browns, where he signed a big contract and was to play alongside another great Syracuse guard, Jim Brown. It never happened. Davis fell ill several weeks before what would have been his first NFL game.
He never played a minute of professional football. Nonetheless, the Browns retired his number 45.
“Some people say I’m unlucky,” Davis wrote in the Saturday Evening Post in the spring of 1963. people won’t get it in a lifetime.”
“There have been so many things for me. I was the first Negro to win the Heisman Trophy… I led the graduation parade last June at Syracuse University, as the senior who contributed the most to the university. .. Since I started in the sport, I’ve always been the player who grabbed the attention, who had great stories written about him.
Jim Brown spoke to Sports Illustrated in the 1980s of Davis. “I thought of him as a…true type of spirit,” Brown said, “who had the ability to rise above things. Ernie Davis transcended racism. That was his essence, his greatness.
The good, it is said, die young. Ernie Davis died without complaint. “He was always optimistic,” recalled his college girlfriend Helen Gott.
Davis’ favorite song, Gott said, was “Our Day Will Come,” by Ruby and the Romantics. “Our day will come and we will have everything…”
Ernie Davis had it all. Then, inexplicably, he left.