Orange Watch: Ernie Davis still resonates

Amidst the continuing, at times surreal, saga involving former assistant coach Bernie Fine, and a flawed football season that failed to build on last season’s bowl victory, there’s a celebration coming up that will put an instant smile on any Orange fan’s face.

Besides the recognition at halftime of the West Virginia football game in October, next week in New York will be an official 50th anniversary soiree honoring one of the greatest feats in all of Syracuse athletics: the 1961 Heisman Trophy winning season of Ernie Davis, and in a sport that was still integrating that very season, becoming the first African-American to win the award.

For the majority of SU fans that never saw Davis play, the indelible visual impression of his historic achievement are the two iconic photographs taken December 6, 1961 at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel.

Both pictures display a nervous-looking Davis, shortly after being announced as the Heisman winner, meeting President Kennedy in a hastily-arranged photo opp. at the National Association of Manufacturers conference outside a hotel ballroom, one photo with Davis’ arms behind his back, the other shaking the president’s hand under the watchful eye of a Secret Service agent-type, with the trophy prominent on a table in the foreground.

Davis, who ran for 823 yards and scored 14 TD’s, helping lead the Orangemen to an eventual 8-3 record and a Liberty Bowl win over Miami, beat out Ohio State fullback Bob Ferguson for the award, with Texas halfback Jimmy Sexton, who played against Davis in SU’s 1960 Cotton Bowl win that came after the team was voted number one, finishing third.

In the bowl game 10 days after winning the Heisman, on a freezing cold day in Philadelphia’s long departed Municipal (later JFK) Stadium, Davis ran for 140 yards on 30 carries and scored a touchdown in his last game as SU edged the Hurricanes 15-14.

Davis died of leukemia less than two years later.

While Davis’ feat will always stand among the most revered in Orange sports history, we’ve always been of the opinion that Syracuse should have three Heisman Trophy winners: Davis, Jim Brown and Don McPherson, the latter two foiled by the national media coverage that follows Notre Dame Football.

Many voters, including the late sportscaster, author, and Cornell graduate Dick Schaap, were so incensed that Brown finished only fifth in the 1956 voting to winner Paul Hornung, that in Schaap’s case in his first Heisman vote, he stopped voting for the award for 25 years as a protest. Hornung was the quarterback of an Irish team that finished with a losing record that season; Brown averaged over 6 yards a carry leading SU to the Cotton Bowl against TCU.

Despite stewarding the ‘Cuse to its magical undefeated 1987 regular season and Sugar Bowl appearance, McPherson seemingly lost the Heisman to Notre Dame’s Tim Brown in September. In week two, Brown returned back-to-back punts for touchdowns in a nationally-televised night game rout against Michigan State in an era where there still wasn’t total TV saturation of the sport. The Irish TV exposure never subsided and “Donnie Mac” could never catch Brown in the voting finishing second.

Next Friday night in Manhattan it will be a university-led event at the New York Historical Society Museum & Library to honor the golden anniversary of Davis’ achievement. Guests are expected to include Vice President Joe Biden, trustees, administrators, faculty/staff, and former athletes including hall-of-famers Floyd Little and Dave Bing who have both said they would not have likely matriculated at Syracuse if it were not for Ernie Davis.

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About Brad Bierman 848 Articles
Now in his sixth decade of covering SU sports, Brad was sports director of WSYR radio for eight years into the early 1990s, then wrote the Orange Watch column for The Big Orange/The Juice print publication for 18 years. A Syracuse University graduate, Brad currently runs his own media consulting business in the Philadelphia suburbs. Follow him on Twitter @BradBierman.