Ernie Davis

Earnest Davis was born in New Salem, Pennsylvania on December 14, 1939 and spent the early years of his life near the Pittsburgh area.  Davis lived with his grandparents until the age of 12 when he moved to Elmira, New York with his mother and stepfather.  Davis was an exceptional athlete from an early age, excelling at multiple sports.  He honed his athletic abilities playing in the Small Fry youth football league and engaging in athletics at the local community center (the Neighborhood House, known as the “Nabe”). 

 

Davis continued his football career in high school becoming Elmira’s player of the year and an
All-American in both his Junior and Senior years. Upon graduating from Elmira Free Academy, Davis enrolled at Syracuse University and quickly became the school’s star running back.  In 1961, Davis made history by becoming the first African-American to earn the prestigious Heisman Trophy.  Davis entered the NFL with the Cleveland Browns, but tragically was never able to fulfill his dreams of professional stardom.  At the age of 23, his life and legacy were cut short when he passed away from leukemia. 

 

The story of Ernie Davis stands as a beacon of hope for youth in the Elmira area, demonstrating that through adversity, hard work and perseverance dreams can prevail.  Ernie Davis was not only an exceptional athlete but also a loyal friend, a dedicated student, a strong member of the community, and a humanitarian.  In remembrance of the spirit of Ernie Davis, a community center was established in his name that provides the youth of  today an opportunity to chase their dreams. 

 

In 2008 the life story of Ernie Davis was depicted in the Hollywood film “The Express,” written by Charles Leavitt. 

Ernie Davis Facts

  • Born December 14, 1939 in New Salem PA.

  • Moved to Elmira NY at age 12.

  • Davis did not play running back in high school until his junior season.

  • As halfback for his high school, Elmira Free Academy, Davis played 13 games, carried the ball 179 times, gained 1,314 yards, averaged 7.4 yards per carry, and scored a school record 138 career points.

  • Davis was also a star on the basketball court, leading EFA to 52 consecutive victories and two successive sectional championships. 

  • He experienced racial discrimination from both opposing players and fans, especially when playing games in the south.

  • Ernie was the first black collegiate player to win the Heisman Trophy.

  • He played with Syracuse from 1959-1961, and was a two-time first team All-American.

  • He was selected as the #1 draft choice coming out of college by the Cleveland Browns.

  • Signed the most lucrative rookie contract to that point in 1961 with the Cleveland Browns, worth an estimated $200,000.

  • He Suffered from a disease known as acute monocytic leukemia.