#Ernie Davis was an African-American football halfback and the first athlete to win the Heisman Trophy. Davis was born in New Salem, Pennsylvania on December 14, 1939. At the age of 14-months Davis was cared for by his maternal grandparents because his father was killed in an accident and his mother Avis Marie Davis Fleming could not care for him alone. At the age of 12, he moved to live with his mother and stepfather in Elmira, New York. He excelled in various sports while attending Elmira Free Academy and received two All-American honors. His senior year of school he was recruited by numerous colleges and chose to go to Syracuse University. While at Syracuse, Davis became a member of the Sigma Alpha Mu Fraternity, a nationally recognized Jewish fraternity. Davis was the first African-American to become part of the organization for the national fraternity as a whole.
Davis wore number 44, and played college football while attending Syracuse University. However, he was soon drafted by the Washington Redskins of the National Football League. He played for Syracuse from 1959 to 1961. Davis found discrimination prevalent in the American South during his Cotton Bowl visit to host city Dallas, Texas. One account of the night of the banquet shortly after the college bowl was given by one of his teammates John Brown. According to an article in the Houston Chronicle, all the players from the game attended the banquet. Brown recalls that the teams sat on opposite sides of the room. After everyone ate and the trophies were handed out, the three black Syracuse players, including Brown and Davis were asked to leave and were taken to another party in Dallas by local NAACP representatives. One Syracuse player, Ger Schwedes, recommended that the whole Syracuse team leave the banquet to show solidarity with their black teammates, but the suggestion was overruled by Syracuse officials.
Davis was soon drafted by the Washington Redskins and given the number 44, but just as soon as he was drafted he was traded to the Cleveland Browns in December of 1961. and given the number 45. Davis never had a chance to play a professional game. He was diagnosed with a toxic form of leukemia and died at the age of 23-years old.
Davis became the first black athlete to be awarded the Heisman Trophy, it is the highest individual honor in collegiate football. He also won the Walter Camp Memorial Trophy following his 1961 senior-year season at Syracuse University. President John F. Kennedy had followed Davis’ career and requested to meet him while he was in New York to receive the trophy. Later in 1963, when Elmira chose February 3 to celebrate Davis’ achievements, Kennedy 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.” Read more.