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Ernie Davis Biography - The Young Athlete, College Career, NFL Career Cut Short, Died at Age (23)

football game team syracuse

1939-1963

Professional football player

Davis, Ernie, photograph. AP/Wide World Photos. Reproduced by permission.

Ernest R. Davis, commonly known as Ernie, was one of the best running backs ever to play college football. He followed the legendary Jim Brown to Syracuse University, where he led the Orangemen to a national championship in 1959, and in 1961 he became the first African American to be awarded the Heisman Trophy, given to the college game's best player. On the precipice of a promising career with the Cleveland Browns of the National Football League (NFL), Davis was struck with leukemia. He never played in a single NFL game and died on May 18, 1963, at the age of 23. He is remembered as a superior athlete and a young man who lived and died with dignity, grace, and compassion.

The Young Athlete

Davis was born on December 14, 1939, in New Salem, Pennsylvania, to Marie Davis. His parents were separated, and his father was killed in an auto accident before Davis was born. Young and needing a job, Davis's mother sent him to live with his maternal grandparents in Uniontown, Pennsylvania, when he was fourteen months old. Willie, a coalminer, and Elizabeth Davis already had twelve children but welcomed their young grandson into their home. Davis spent his early years playing sports with his older uncles.

When he was eleven years old, Davis's mother remarried and summoned her only child to Elmira, New York, to live with her. For Davis, who was quiet and shy, the transition was tough, but his athletic abilities, already apparent at a young age, helped earn him the respect of the kids at the local community center. Also, even in his youth, others noticed the special quality of Davis's character that radiated sincerity, enthusiasm, and friendliness. He played tackle on Small Fry football for the Superior Buick team. Although he was big for his age, he never delivered punishing blows and often would simply pick the smaller kids up and wait for the whistle to blow rather than slam them to the ground.

As a freshman at Elmira Free Academy, Ernie joined the junior varsity football team, but broke his wrist in the first game and was out for the rest of the season. However, it did not stop him from playing basketball. Having made the varsity team, Davis, with his wrist still in a splint, came off the bench in his first game to score 22 points. He also played first base and pitched for the baseball team. Although baseball was the weakest of his three sports, several professional scouts kept an eye on him.

In 1955, during his sophomore year, Davis played defensive end on the football team, and they went undefeated on the season and won the conference championship. The following year his coach moved him to halfback, and the Blue Devils won another league title. In 1957, Davis's senior year, they suffered some losses due to a bout of the Asian flu that weakened the team, but Davis earned all-conference for the third consecutive year. In the thirteen games he played in the halfback position, he carried the ball 179 times for 1,314 yards, averaging 7.4 yards per carry, and he scored a school-record 138 career points on 21 touchdowns and 12 place kicks.

Davis also continued to excel on the basketball court. He led his team to 52 straight wins during his junior and senior years, averaged 18.4 points per game, and set a conference record of 1,065 points. He could jump, rebound, and shoot. If the game was close, his point total would go up; if the Blue Devils had a padded lead, Davis would back off and his point total would fall. It was simply his style to never try to play to the crowds or embarrass an opponent. A career in professional basketball was well within Davis's reach, but, in the end, football was his first love.

College Career

More than thirty colleges and universities, including football superpowers the University of Michigan and Notre Dame, actively sought to add Davis to their football programs. He was also heavily recruited by Syracuse University, another football powerhouse, who sent Jim Brown, their All-American running back and one of the team's first African Americans players, to convince Davis. Based on Brown's influence, his own coach's friendship with Syracuse coach Ben Schwartzwalder, and its close proximity to his home (90 miles), Davis chose Syracuse.

Davis's freshman team in 1958 went undefeated. At 6-foot, 2-inches and 210 pounds, he was a fast, strong, and smart player. He was a skilled running back, compiling 100-plus yards in eleven games during his college career. He could also return kicks, block, catch passes, and even kick the team's extra points. In the days when players freely switched between offense and defense, he also was an effective defensive back. Not only did Davis impress those around him with his athletic skills, he also earned their respect for his kind and generous nature. "Ernie was just like a puppy dog, friendly and warm and kind," Schwartzwalder told Sports Illustrated. "He had that spontaneous goodness about him. He radiated enthusiasm. His enthusiasm rubbed off on the kids. Oh, he'd knock you down, but then he'd run back and pick you up. We never had a kid so thoughtful and polite."

In 1959 Davis, now a sophomore, rushed for 686 yards and led the Syracuse Orangemen to an 11-0 record. Davis individually outscored Syracuse's opponents 80-73. On January 1, 1960, the Orangemen faced second-ranked University of Texas in the Cotton Bowl for the national title. While practicing place kicks prior to the game, Davis strained his hamstring and played the game hurt, but it did little to slow him down. On the third play from scrimmage, the Orangemen ran a halfback pitch in which Gerhard Schwedes took the handoff and then flung the ball down the field to Davis who caught the pass and ran for an 87-yard touch-down, setting a Cotton Bowl record. Davis later caught a 4-yard touchdown pass, scored a 2-point conversion, and intercepted a pass while playing defensive back.

Tensions flared during the game when Syracuse players accused the University of Texas players of directing racial slurs at one of their black players, and a bench-clearing brawl broke out just before the end of the first half. Although Texas managed to get on the board in the second half, Syracuse won the game 23-14. Davis was named player of the game, but when he was informed that he would have to leave the banquet after receiving his award and that he and his two black teammates would not be allowed attend the dinner, the entire Syracuse team boycotted the event.

At a Glance …

Born on December 14, 1939, in New Salem, PA; died on May 18, 1963, in Cleveland, OH; son of Marie Davis Fleming. Education: Syracuse University, BA, economics, 1962.

Career: Professional football player, 1962-63 (died before playing in first game).

Selected awards: First Team All-American, 1960, 1961; Heisman Trophy, 1961; Sports Magazine Player of the Year, 1961; Walter Camp Trophy (college player of the year), 1961; College Football Hall of Fame, 1979.

During his junior year Davis rushed for 877 yards and was named an All-American. Although his senior year of 1961 was not his best all-round performance, Davis was once again named an All-American. He also had a stellar performance in Syracuse's 15-14 win over the University of Miami (Florida) in the Liberty Bowl, with 140 total yards and a touchdown, and was named the game's most valuable player. Over his college career, Davis broke numerous records previously set by Brown, including 2,386 yards rushing, 6.6 yards per carry, 35 touchdowns, and 220 points. At the end of the season he edged out Ohio State halfback Bob Ferguson by 53 votes to become the first African-American player to be awarded the Heisman Trophy, college football's highest honor.

NFL Career Cut Short

After graduating from Syracuse with a bachelor's degree in economics in 1962, Davis prepared to enter the NFL. The Buffalo Bills of the fledging American Football League reportedly offered Davis a three-year contract, but Davis wanted to play in the NFL so he turned down the offer. The Washington Redskins took Davis as the overall number-one pick and then traded him to the Cleveland Browns for the Browns' running back Bobby Mitchell and their number-one pick. Cleveland gave Davis a three-year contract worth $200,000 (initially reported at $80,000). Jim Brown was already a member of the Cleveland organization, and Browns' owner Art Modell was looking forward to having the most explosive backfield in the history of the NFL.

Looking back, those who knew Davis first remember seeing a change in him at the Coaches All-Star Game on June 29, 1962. He looked tired and sluggish. Davis blamed it on the scorching heat out on the field, but after the game he continued to complain of fatigue and mentioned to a friend that his gums were bleeding. In late July Davis flew out to Chicago to begin practice for the College All-Stars match-up with the Chicago Bears, and others began to notice his lackluster behavior on the field. On July 28, 1962, Davis felt swelling in his neck and was admitted to Evanston Hospital. It was suspected that he had the mumps or mononucleosis, but the tests brought back much more dire results: Davis had acute monocytic leukemia.

The doctors did not disclose Davis's condition to him but rather called Modell and broke the news to the team's owner. Modell immediately traveled to Evanston, where he conferred with doctors and checked Davis out of the hospital. Told he had some type of blood disorder, Davis flew back to Cleveland and was admitted to Marymount Hospital, where Modell insisted the lab work be redone. The results were clear: Davis had less than a year to live.

After undergoing a round of chemotherapy and spending almost two months in and out of hospitals, Davis's leukemia went into remission, and on October 4, 1962, Davis's doctor, with Modell present, finally explained the extent of his illness to him. Although Modell's doctor told Davis he could continue to play football as long as the disease was in remission, the Browns' head coach Paul Brown refused to allow Davis to suit up on the advice of his own team doctor. It became a point of contention between Modell and Brown, but Davis never complained. He remained hopeful that he could beat the disease and refused any pity offered by others.

While the disease was in remission, Davis reported that he felt fine. He even participated in some exhibition basketball games with some Browns' players. According to ESPN Classic's Bob Carter, Davis wrote an article for the Saturday Evening Post in March of 1963, in which he said, "Some people say that I am unlucky. I don't believe it. And I don't want to sound as if I am particularly brave or unusual. Sometimes I still get down, and sometimes I feel sorry for myself. Nobody is just one thing all the time. But when I look back I can't call myself unlucky. My 23rd birthday was December 14. In these years I have had more than most people get in a lifetime."

Died at Age (23)

Shortly after the article appeared, the leukemia reoccurred, and Davis once again became a regular at the hospital. The Browns paid his salary and all his medical bills. "He used to come in to my office," recalled Modell, according to Newsline, "and apologize for taking the money. He knew he was dying but he never lost his poise. Knowing him taught me a lot about life. You could not know him without suffering for him which was exactly what he didn't want you to do."

On Thursday, May 16, 1963, Davis wrote Coach Brown a note that said, "Going to the hospital for a few days. Don't tell anybody. See you around." He then went to Modell's office to say that he was once again entering the hospital. Although at the time Modell wondered why Davis had not simply called, later he understood that Davis was coming to say goodbye. Davis then checked into the hospital for the last time. On Friday night he fell into a coma. At 2 a.m. on Saturday, May 18, 1963, he coughed once and died.

Thousands turned out to mourn his passing. Nearly thirty Browns players and staff flew in to Elmira for the funeral service. President John F. Kennedy sent a telegram, and more than 10,000 people filed past his coffin in one day. The Browns retired Davis's number 45, even though he had never played an NFL game. He was elected into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1979. According to ESPN.com, Jim Brown said of his friend: "The way he carried himself, the way he did not drown in his own tears, the way that he did not hang on his sickness, the way that he functioned as a human being under all of those conditions was tremendous courage."

Sources

Books

Dictionary of American Biography, Supplement 7: 1961-1965, American Council of Learned Societies, 1981.

Gallagher, Robert C., Ernie Davis, the Elmira Express: The Story of a Heisman Trophy Winner, Bartleby Press, 1983.

Periodicals

Jet, December 4, 2000, p. 19; December 1, 2003, p. 22.

Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service, November 16, 2003.

Newsline, Spring 1993, pp. 4-5.

Sports Illustrated, September 4, 1989, p. 136.

Star-Gazette (Elmira, NY), December 8, 2001.

Washington Times, July 15, 2003, p. B8.

On-line

"Davis Won Heisman, Respect," ESPN Classic, www.espn.go.com/classic/biography/s/Davis_Ernie.html (September 27, 2004).

"Ernie Davis, Elmira Express," Star-Gazette (Elmira, NY), www.stargazettesports.com/ErnieDavis/ (September 27, 2004).

"Ernie Davis: The Elmira Express," City of Elmira (NY), www.ci.elmira.ny.us/history/ernie_davis.html (October 14, 2004).

"More Info on Ernie Davis," ESPN Classic, www.espn.go.com/classic/s/000801erniedavisadd.html (September 27, 2004).

"1961, 27th Award: Ernest Davis," The Heisman Memorial Trophy Winners, www.heisman.com/years/1961.html (September 27, 2004).

—Kari Bethel

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over 2 years ago

i loook yup to enrie on nd off the field he inspires me to be the be i can be along wit god and my parents ........................................... he is my role model

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over 3 years ago

i look up to Ernie. My respect goes on to Ernie he was the best.! i wounder if he whould have played in the NFL he whould had killed.! Loved the movie.

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about 4 years ago

I THINK THERE SHOULD BE AN AWARD NAMED AFTER DAVIS. THE AWARD SHOULD REFLECT SOMEONE WITH OUTSTANDING ABILTY AND DIGNITY.

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about 4 years ago

i watched the movie and it was i great movie but a sad way for ernie davis to die, he was 23 and had his life ahead of him. ernie davis is a hero of mine because he tryed his hardest to make his dream to be a nfl star. REST IN PEACE ERNIE DAVIS

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almost 4 years ago

It was a tragety that someone with that much talent and good heart and will, die so young. He could have easily been one of the Greatest NFL players around. REST IN PEACE ERNEST R. DAVIS you have earned it.

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over 2 years ago

why dont dis web site have anything bad a bout himjust alll dis good shyt come on now .iknow dat theres a lot of bad shyt outcan u plz find some and put itb on here

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almost 4 years ago

I've read and seen the movie of Mr Ernie Davis. He is a true hero of mine, just like today Michael Vick is. I've been told that I'm a hero as well as Mr. Davis, because of serving my time in the military and a Desert Storm Vet and being a body-builder as well. I've made some great accomplished just like Ernie Davis did, and I just wanted to say. We shall meet again one day my brother, and we shall celebrate in triumph with the great things we did as black men here on earth. God rest your soul and until we meet again, take care. You in God's hands now.

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over 3 years ago

I just saw the movie @ Ernie Davis yesterday(19/01/2011).I didn't know that he was a great athlete. He was a very determined person. He has touched me wholesomely that I am planning to read his bio pretty soon. I wish the youth of today can look at him as their role model. It's so sad that he passed away at a very young age, but GOD knows. Determination+optimism+dreams+respect = reward.....

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over 3 years ago

Ernie Davis was an amazing player however, the movie does not depict him just as. I am doing a ressearch report for school on Davis because I saw the video, but quite a few things aren't true in the movie. My respect goes on to Ernie Davis in his struggle for freedom, and unity. Congratulations Ernie.

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over 3 years ago

GO ERNIE

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almost 4 years ago

The movie was great!

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over 4 years ago

he was the best running back i look up to him. the movie is great.

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about 4 years ago

I saw the movie The Express about Ernie Davis and to say that it was eye opening and informative was an understatement. I just read this article today and I must say that I think Mr. Davis has touched me in an amazing way. It was reported that he died at 2am on May 18, 1963. Well I went into labor around 2 am on May 18, 2003, and gave birth to a baby girl 14 hours later. She has a heart defect but is the light of my life. 40-yr irony. thanks Ernie.

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over 2 years ago

Only two words " Ernie Davis " is all that has to be said.

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almost 3 years ago

your story is very very nice telling the history about ernie davis

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about 3 years ago

Just watch the movie, it was great and ernie davis a

was one of the most greatest running ever live in spite or ratial problems RIP Ernie Davies

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over 3 years ago

he was the best running back ever he inspired me

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over 3 years ago

ernie davis was a famous football player he was the first black player to win a highsmen award

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over 3 years ago

A wonderful movie, but must watch for everyone including the so called World Leaders

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over 3 years ago

I just saw the movie, and was so moved that i had to search the net for more info.



Davis would have been in the nfl hall of fame today and the whole story is such a shame. I wonder what a classy gentleman as Davis would have done with his life off the field...it seems that he would have made an impact on many people's lives.

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almost 4 years ago

I just saw the movie...It was an awesome story...he seemed like a wonderful person...

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almost 4 years ago

Truley an extrodinary player I wonder if ever thought of running track or mabey having a way to stop the luekeima.

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almost 4 years ago

The kind of faith and determination i see in Ernie is rare..that tells one thing:YOU CAN BE WHATEVER YOU WANT TO BE.

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almost 4 years ago

Just saw the movie...wow!!! I had no idea that Ernie was the first African American to win the H Trophy award. He was real Hero to all Americans. I plan on reading his bio. He was a real class act too. God bless his soul.

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over 3 years ago

Ernie Davis my hero he was the best.! Running back

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almost 4 years ago

Ernie Davis was a splendid athlete with superior hard working ethics. The generation of today could learn so much from this young man's life. He was an outstanding citizen and a beautiful human being. I saw the movie and was truly moved by all that he to endure and to die so young was simply a travesty.

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almost 4 years ago

a great persons life cut way to short. no one will ever inspire people like he did.

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about 4 years ago

I watched the movie with my 14 year old sister. She asked numerous questions, which I answered most. By far this was a phenomenal movie about the "black american male athlete". I hope higher education athletic departments intergrate this movie within curriculums; so that today's athletes can see what it's like to be descriminated against across cultures. Perhaps, some athletes will have greater appreciation for their education and athletic opportunities. Despite an ahtletes strenght, pride and ego; we must pay more attention to our physical and emotional health.

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almost 3 years ago

hy

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about 3 years ago

крутой был Девис)))

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over 3 years ago

Whao...a true legend walked this earth and he was proudly black and I am proud...

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over 3 years ago

i do a homework of ernie

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over 3 years ago

he inspired me he rocks

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over 3 years ago

Ernie Davis Is a true leader he's the best.

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over 3 years ago

the movie is sweet and he is an awesome running back

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over 3 years ago

cooll

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5 months ago

Just watched the movie & It was truly awesome. Ernie was an exceptional young man and and a model to all players in every sport. Tomorrow isn't promise! Pursue your dreams today. This young man clearly had an awesome solid foundation and role models around that supported him. May his memories bless someone else. Sincerely!

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over 1 year ago

I enjoyed the movie alot more than any other movie i have watched. I grew up in Elmira and went to his Jr high school named after him.

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about 2 years ago

i just watch the movie of ernie davis "the express"(august 10,2012.And after watching i extremly do a reserch about him because i did not watch the whole story.I was deeply touch about his lifestory. even though i was not born at that time but i really amazed of what was his achievement.He was great person and great professional football player.

May you had a rest in peace Ernie Davis. I know your in GOD'S hand.

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over 2 years ago

i was thinking i might play football just like him but im a singer but yea he died and it is sad it was my first day even knowing about him and hes a good person.ERNIE DAVIS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!PS. YOU ROCK

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over 2 years ago

This is the most beautiful story I have ever read, next to the Birth of Christ. This young man had integrity, he was audacious, brave, bold , respectable, strong and a wonderful role model. I cried looking at this story like he was my son and I shared in his mother's fears, happiness and pain like it was happening at that very moment. I could also feel his girlfriends' joy and lost. I know the NFL wish there were many more players like Ernie Davis, he was a wonderful man and just by the fact I am just learning about this man's legacy, not about him tells me his life was for a much bigger purpose and reason than playing football. I thought he had played in the NFL and was still alive; just aged. Learning about him was a honor and it says there is still hope for more to be like Ernie Davis. I have shared his story with my grandsons in hopes that they can model themselves after such a wonderful human being. Thank you for this moment.

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over 2 years ago

I watched the movie,I do remember his name although I was just a little kid at the time. He " Ernie Davis " was a hero to alot of us.

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over 2 years ago

I saw the Ernest Davis story on T.V.
and then read it on the internet. The story was not only empowering and inspiring to every young man, but also to young women, and American. We know who we are as African Americans. It important that we get along with all people.that is school, work,and play we are really only one people under God. A salute to Black history month.

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almost 3 years ago

The Lord work on a material way, Ernie life was to be a professionnal for the Lord, he was put in the land to do one mission and he perform with a great deal, he mission was to show other no matter what race, religion or Ethic you was show then kindness, be polite and respect and teach other to be equally to him, He receive the biggest contract of he life, now he seating beside the Lord, God Bless you Ernie RIP until should we meet again in Hevan

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almost 3 years ago

great player probally would have been better than jim brown, sometimes you have to ask, what would it had been like if he didnt die?

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about 3 years ago

I was watching the history channel, and I was deeply touch about this yonge man; it brings tears to my soul. journey continues..... RIP Mr. Davis



Mark



Toronto Ontario Canada

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over 3 years ago

I saw the movie about month ago and i'll tell you Ernie Davis was one of the most greatest running ever live and it wasnt just his amazing athletic ability it was his dignity and sportsmanship and he was also smart and me... i think he is the best running in college history but not better then the great jim brown lol. but he was a amazing athlete.

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over 3 years ago

It is my prayer that all man can be as Audacious, demonstrative and earnest as this man. Arnie seem like he was a good man,he was like a broken man…..it is in brokenness that man will truly feel compassion, and seek not only to be good, but to do good giving God the glory always. He sounds like a man who knew God, and no-one can give such love and have such empathy unless they have had an encounter with love Himself ‘Jesus’.

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over 3 years ago

ernie davis was a very good man i look up to him he reminds me of my father cause my dad is a very hard working man and never give up and his saying rattles in my head " somtimes you forget the crowd, the nosie and its just you agianst sombody to see whos the better man i will never forget that saying cause now thats my saying

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over 3 years ago

I have just watched the Ernie Davia movie and felt the need to pen this-what a fabulous depiction of the struggles of the human race-what an incredible young man Ernie Davis was and how he took life as the gift that it is-sports was his paper but his life was his words-we could all learn a great deal from a life that was cut way too short-share this amazing story with those that you can and together we may all be able to change the way our world is today-

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over 3 years ago

I was touched by the film,and that film let me understand something important that ERNIE wanted to give it to us:that to believe in our selfs and never backdown even the world wanted that and at that time the blacks was humiliated but Ernie was a great hero didn't retreats...... i love you Ernie your my idole (K)Rest In Peace!!!

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about 4 years ago

Just last night I watched the movie made in honor of this young man. He was spectacular! He had a short life but he left a legacy...

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over 3 years ago

yo fuk you guys you diks god dam

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over 2 years ago

I am the author of the family approved biography of Ernie Davis, "A Halo for a Helmet." It is the most accurate and complete book on Ernie's life and career and should be included as a resource. I will be happy to send a copy to the appropriate place so you can see how important it is to include this book, published in 2008. Thank you. The book is available on Amazon, Kindle and Nook and the website is www.erniedavis.info

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over 1 year ago

He followed the legendary Jim Brown to Syracuse University
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