Ernie Davis made history in 1961 by becoming the first Black player to win the coveted Heisman trophy as a standout player for Syracuse University.
Selected number one overall in the 1962 NFL draft, the All-American halfback’s life was tragically cut short, and we look back at Davis’ accomplishments on his birthday.
Davis was born in 1939 in New Salem, Penn. He was a multi-sport prodigy in Elmira, New York, becoming a high school All-American in basketball and football. He famously led the Elmira Free Academy to 52 consecutive wins and it was said he would have excelled as a basketball player but football was his first love.
Under the suggestion of Syracuse great and NFL legend Jim Brown, Davis played for the school and became a two-time Consensus All-American while helping the team win its lone national championship in 1959.
The Washington Redskins drafted Davis, despite the team’s owner reportedly being known as a racist who didn’t want to integrate his team because of its strong white southern fan base. However, the Secretary of the Interior demanded that the owner sign Davis or risk losing a lease for the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium within the city limits.
The Redskins facilitated a trade with the Cleveland Browns, however, Davis never suited up for the team except for a preseason contest. He fell ill in 1962 with leukemia.
Despite a valiant fight, Davis lost the battle with the disease, dying at the age of 23 in 1963.