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A. D. Cox
- Publié sur Amazon.com
The Elmira Express
I love the Twin Tiers in the autumn. The days are still warm; the nights cool, giving birth to vibrant fall colors. The hills seem almost alive, and the threat of colder weather is a promise on the wind. Fall in the Twin Tiers ushers in a revered tradition. When it's autumn in America, it's time for football. Across the land, in big cities and small towns, in large stadiums and rural high schools--the sights, sounds, and colors of the game are all around us. The common thread is the game, and the athletes that practice and play it with heart and determination to the very best of their abilities.
Few players have shown more heart or determination than Ernie Davis. Davis was born on Dec. 14, 1939, in New Salem, Pa. His parents separated shortly after his birth, and his father was soon killed in an accident. He grew up in poverty in Uniontown, a coal-mining town 50 miles south of Pittsburgh, where caring grandparents raised him.
At 12, Davis moved to live with his mother and stepfather in Elmira. He went on to become Elmira's favorite son, both as an outstanding athlete and as a respected and well-loved citizen. Ernie's talent bloomed, and the honors came early and often. He led Elmira Free Academy to a 52-game winning streak in basketball and as a Syracuse sophomore helped the Orangemen gain their only national football championship.
As a senior in 1961, he became the first African American athlete to win the Heisman trophy and was the number one pick in the 1962 NFL draft. And then, suddenly, he was gone. He was diagnosed with leukemia the summer before his rookie season. He never played in the NFL, but succumbed to the disease less than a year later. Though Ernie never played a game for the Cleveland Browns, they retired his number 45, worn only in practice.
Davis was easily recognized as a great athlete, but his high school coach, Marty Harrigan, summed up what many felt for Ernie Davis when he said, "Everyone knew Ernie's athletic greatness, but few realized what a great human he was. His concern for his fellow man, and his affection for children, was sincere."
I think this is what moved me the most when I read The Express, The Ernie Davis Story by Robert C. Gallagher. There are lots of talented professional athletes today, and most of them are more than willing to inform you just how gifted they are, but the media exposure never changed him. "Ernie was the same kid at the end as he was at the start," said Jim Flynn, his high school basketball coach.
Ernie believed he was fortunate to be so gifted and never took his ability for granted. He worked hard both on the field and in the classroom. "Ernie was always the first one on the practice field and the last to leave." Many athletes, assured of a college scholarship, would have coasted in class, but "Ernie worked hard when it wasn't popular to get good grades. The teachers loved him. He never would excuse himself from work and say he had too many outside activities." Ernie intended to play professional football, but he knew that career expectancy in the NFL was only a few seasons, so he wanted to be prepared for another career when he retired from football. He believed that education would lead to social and economic success.
Syracuse University experienced its greatest football success during Ernie's career. The Orangemen became the national champions and winners of the Cotton Bowl. Four days before the game, Ernie pulled a hamstring while practicing place kicks. It was doubtful right up until game time whether he could play. Before leaving the game in the fourth quarter, he scored two touchdowns, including a then Bowl-record pass play, scored twice on two-point conversions, and intercepted a pass that led to Syracuse's final touchdown.
He was voted the game's Most Valuable Player. Davis was to have received his MVP award at the awards banquet that night. But when bowl officials said that only white players were invited to the dinner and that Davis would have to leave after picking up his trophy, the Syracuse team refused to attend.
It was Ernie's performance against the University of Pittsburgh that same year which inspired the nickname "The Elmira Express." Elmira Star-Gazette sports writer Al Mallette coined the phrase. Penn State coach Joe Paterno had this to say about Ernie Davis: "He's the kind of runner you hate to coach against; you can't instruct a boy to tackle a man if he can't catch him."
It was December 1961 when Ernie won the Heisman trophy. Winning the Heisman is a significant accomplishment regardless of the year or player, but it was a significant racial breakthrough at a time with segregation was just beginning to become a social issue. Today, black players often win the award, and it might be hard for his contemporaries to appreciate his achievement.
When he was in New York to receive the Heisman, Davis was treated with media coverage usually reserved for national heroes. President John Kennedy was in the city at the time and asked to see Ernie, a visit that thrilled him. "Imagine," Davis said, "a president wanting to shake hands with me."
Ernie was the number one pick for the 1962 National Football League draft following his senior year. The Washington Redskins had the initial selection, but soon traded him to the Cleveland Browns, who signed him to a three-year no-cut, no-trade $65,000 contract with a $15,000 signing bonus, a new record for a rookie.
The next summer while training for the upcoming All-Star game, Ernie awoke with swelling in his neck. A trainer sent him to the hospital, and doctors soon discovered the leukemia. At the time, Ernie and the public were told only that he had a "blood disorder". He wasn't told it was leukemia until October, after he had been in and out of the hospital. "Either you fight or you give up," Davis said in remembering how he felt when told the news.
The disease went into remission, and Davis kept planning on pro football. He practiced with the Browns. Coach Paul Brown, heeding the advice of medical people who warned him of the risks, did not play Davis. The next spring, Davis noticed more swelling and entered the hospital again. Two days later, on May 18, he died in his sleep. In Elmira, more than 10,000 citizens passed the Neighborhood House on May 21 where Ernie lay in state. Flags in the city were flown at half-mast. He was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery, also the burial place of Mark Twain.
Universal Pictures has finished production on the film adaptation of Davis's life. The movie is slated for release Oct. 10. The book is available now. Stop by your local bookstore or library and check it out. You can catch Kevin tailgating at From My Shelf Books in Wellsboro.