NEW YORK — Teammates and classmates of Ernie Davis, as well as others he had affected, paid tribute to Davis during a ceremony to commemorate the 50th anniversary celebration of Davis becoming the first African-American to win the Heisman trophy.
“Ernie Davis gave a whole group of people hope,” said Vice President Joe Biden, who graduated from the Syracuse University College of Law in 1968. “He gave us confidence. He gave us all the will to keep chasing after our dreams.”
“He accomplished something that was considered impossible to do,” said Art Monk, an NFL Hall of Fame inductee, and a 1980 Syracuse graduate. “It allowed guys like us who came after the ability to think, ‘Yes, we can do that, too.'”
Davis, a two-time All-American, led Syracuse to the 1959 national championship as a sophomore. In his junior and senior years, he was named Most Valuable Player of the 1960 Cotton Bowl and the 1961 Liberty Bowl.
But Davis never lost his trademark humility despite his massive accomplishments.
“He was the most humble guy I’ve ever met,” said Billy Hunter, currently the Executive Director of the National Basketball Players Association, and a former teammate of Davis’ on the SU football team. “This guy was an icon in the truest sense of the word. He was probably the nicest, the most sincere guy that I ever met.”
Davis was drafted by the NFL’s Washington Redskins and immediately was traded to the Cleveland Browns in 1961. But Davis would never play in the NFL after he was diagnosed with leukemia in 1962.
Despite the grim prognosis, Davis never let his spirit be overcome by his disease.
“He never felt sorry for himself,” said David Bing, currently the Mayor of Detroit and an NBA Hall of Fame inductee, who was recruited by Davis to play basketball at SU. “That was so impressive to me because we knew what he was going through, yet he still had dignity and professionalism.”
Davis passed away in 1963 at the age of 23. But despite his short life, his legacy has continued to live on since then.
There was Mike Garrett, who attended USC, and became the second African-American to win the Heisman Trophy in 1965.
“I played every game that year like it was the last game of the year,” Garrett said. “It was really easy thing to do because I tried to play like Ernie Davis.”
Monk recalled his first visit to Syracuse, and the role Davis played in his recruitment.
“One of the first things they showed me is the Heisman Trophy,” Monk said. “They talked about Ernie Davis and what he meant to the University and what he meant to the football program.”
Davis famously wore No. 44, the same number that his idol, Jim Brown, wore.
That number became synonymous with excellence at Syracuse. Eventually, No. 44 went to Floyd Little, a player that Davis helped recruit.
Originally slated to attend Army, Little instead decided to follow in the footsteps of Davis. In his SU career, Little became a three-time All-American running back.
Said Little: “Because he didn’t have the opportunity to do the things that he could do, and live the life he could’ve lived, I’ve taken upon myself to try to live the life that Ernie didn’t.”