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First African-American To Win The Heisman Trophy

February 1, 2012 by staff 

First African-American To Win The Heisman Trophy, Ernest “Ernie” Davis (December 14, 1939 – May 18, 1963) was an American football running back and the first African-American athlete to win the Heisman Trophy. Wearing number 44, Davis competed collegiately for Syracuse University before being drafted by the Washington Redskins, then almost immediately traded to the Cleveland Browns in December 1961. However, he would never play a professional game, as he was diagnosed with leukemia in 1962. He is the subject of the 2008 Universal Pictures movie biography The Express, based on the non-fiction book Ernie Davis: The Elmira Express, by Robert C. Gallagher.

Davis played football for Syracuse University, and went on to gain national fame for three seasons (1959-1961), twice winning first-team All-American honors. As a sophomore in 1959, Davis led Syracuse to the NCAA Division I-A national football championship, capping an undefeated season with a 23-14 win over The University of Texas in the Cotton Bowl Classic. That same year, Elmira Star-Gazette sports writer Al Mallette coined the nickname for Davis, the “Elmira Express”. Davis was voted Most Valuable Player of the 1960 Cotton Bowl Classic and the 1961 Liberty Bowl. In his junior year, he set a record of 7.8 yards per carry and was the third leading rusher in the country with 877 yards, having rushed 100 yards in 6 of 9 games.

Davis found discrimination prevalent in the American South during his Cotton Bowl Classic visit. Author Jocelyn Selim writes that at the banquet following the 1960 game, Davis was told he could only accept his award and then would be required to leave the segregated facility. Davis refused and his teammates, nearly all of them white, boycotted the banquet.

A different account of the banquet is given by John Brown. He was Davis’ teammate at Syracuse and on the Cleveland Browns, his roommate and a close friend. 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. When the Chronicle asked Brown “whether the film is a truthful portrayal of his friend, Brown said… in short, no.”

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