Syracuse University

Ernie Davis photo

Ernie Davis

The first African American to win the Heisman Trophy.

Ernie Davis, the first African American to win collegiate football’s highest honor, the Heisman Trophy, was one of the greatest athletes to wear the orange. While a student at his high school in Elmira, New York, he lettered in football, basketball, and baseball, and was highly sought after by college coaches around the country. He chose Syracuse University, giving him the chance to play on a team with Jim Brown ’57, and be coached by the legendary Ben Schwartzwalder.

Davis was only a sophomore when he led the Orange to an undefeated season and a national championship, clinching the title in the 1960 New Year’s Day Cotton Bowl with a 23-14 victory over Texas. He was named the game’s most valuable player for his two touchdowns, including a bowl-record 87-yard touchdown reception. All-America honors were his in 1960 and 1961, the year he won the Heisman. Chosen by the Cleveland Browns in the 1962 NFL Draft, Davis was to join former teammate Jim Brown in the Cleveland backfield. But Davis never played one game on the professional gridiron—his life cut tragically short by leukemia.

The story of his life was made into a motion picture, The Express, starring Rob Brown and Dennis Quaid. The film’s world premiere was held in Syracuse’s historic Landmark Theatre, where Davis and his friends often went to the movies.

Syracuse University continues to honor Davis and his accomplishments, naming a residence hall in his honor, erecting a statue in his likeness on the Quad, and naming the Carrier Dome field “Ernie Davis Legends Field.”

In 2005, SU officially retired the number 44, one of the most storied numbers ever associated with a college football team. Since 1954, 11 players have worn the number and three earned All-America honors. The three most famous 44s—Jim Brown, Ernie Davis, and Floyd Little—rank among the finest running backs to ever play the game.