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Ernie Davis
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Breaking Barriers

1961 Heisman winner Ernie Davis

The man's tombstone reads: "Ernie Davis/1961 Heisman Trophy/1939-63"
Becoming the first African-American winner of the Heisman was a defining achievement for Davis, but it did not fully define his brief, graceful life. Because for everything he was on the football field -- record-breaking running back, national champion, No. 1 NFL draft choice and, yes, Heisman winner -- he was considered an even better man off it. "I never met another human being as good as Ernie," said his coach at Syracuse, Ben Schwartzwalder. Except for those who could not handle the idea of a black superstar in college football, respect for Davis was universal. When he won the Heisman, none other than sitting president John F. Kennedy came to New York to meet him. Tragically, both would be gone less than two years later -- Davis succumbing to leukemia, Kennedy being assassinated. There was good reason for Kennedy to be impressed by Davis -- and good reason to give him the Heisman. He broke the Syracuse career rushing and scoring records held by the legendary Jim Brown, and the Orangemen went 26-5 during his three varsity seasons. Still, the voting in 1961 was among the closest in Heisman history. Davis finished just 53 points ahead of Ohio State fullback Bob Ferguson (another African-American), and six different players received more than 50 first-place votes. Davis carried only one of the five voting regions (the East), and each region was won by a different player. John Hadl, Roman Gabriel and Merlin Olsen were top-10 vote getters in 1961 on their way to NFL stardom. Sadly, Davis never got to join them at the game's highest level -- but he did break many barriers and touch many lives in the time he had. Two months before he died, Davis wrote the following in the Saturday Evening Post: "Some people say 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."
-- Pat Forde


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