Ernie Davis with his Heisman Trophy—12/61

I woke up pretty pissed about how unfair life was for Ernie Davis. I never heard of him until last night, when I bumped into a movie about him called The Express, because he was so fast and so good. Coming from a dirt poor childhood, he wins a football scholarship to Syracuse and becomes the first in his family to go to college, the first African-American to win the 1961 Heisman Trophy, which is the most prestigious award in college football given to the most outstanding player, and then in 1962 Ernie becomes the first African-American to be the number one pick in the NFL Draft.

It was late at night, I was tired, so at this point I stopped watching the movie and took a quick trip to the internet to see how his life turned out. Dammit. He never played one pro game, because he was soon diagnosed with leukemia and died a year later…he was just 23. Snuffed out.

If I could interview him in heaven, he might tell me that he had more fame and success and satisfaction in his few years alive than many people who live three or four times longer. He might tell me that all the racism he encountered was painful, but he helped inspire other black people to strive for their best and not back down. If one part of the movie is accurate, he also convinced white folks, like his coach, teammates, and classmates, to be more accepting of black people and see that the differences between the races are not as great as they were raised to perceive.

After the Heisman Award Ceremony, President John F. Kennedy, who had followed Davis’ career, met him and congratulated him personally. Later in 1963, Kennedy sent a telegram, reading:

“Seldom has an athlete been more deserving of such a tribute. Your high standards of performance on the field and off the field, reflect the finest qualities of competition, sportsmanship and citizenship. The nation has bestowed upon you its highest awards for your athletic achievements. It’s a privilege for me to address you tonight as an outstanding American, and as a worthy example of our youth. I salute you.”

So what’s my point? Clearly Davis was not an ordinary person. But he did face enormous obstacles—no money, no connections, bigotry, isolation, social pressure to not cross over conventional lines. Yet he overcame them. If you and I can’t make such big leaps, if we are never going to be written about in papers and national magazines, or documented in movies, we can still be inspired by his example to make smaller achievements than his, but the biggest ones we are capable of.

Ernie Davis wearing the same number 44 as Jim Brown did before him

I once asked a philanthropist I met if she agreed that people were mean-spirited, jealous, self-centered, envious, evil, corrupt, greedy, power-seeking? She reminded me that some people are noble, creative, altruistic, dedicated to improving society and the lives of their fellows, unselfish, humble and happy. I could focus on either group, or be aware that there are these two groups. But I shouldn’t forget about these good people, whenever the news stories concentrate on the mis-deeds of the bad guys. A great lesson.

As I searched for information about Ernie Davis, I found this letter written to Syracuse newspaper editor, Donnie Webb from an elementary school teacher. Very touching. (I should mention that Ernie’s jersey number 44 was also worn before him at Syracuse University by Jim Brown, whom many consider the greatest football player of all time.)

Donnie,
I am writing you to tell you about how Ernie Davis’ spirit is alive and well at our school. We adopted him as our symbol of character three years ago. He is the symbol of our character education program. Each and every student in our k-5 building knows who he is, what he stood for and they try to act as Ernie would have. Each September we hold an assembly and show the 44 video (E.D. part) to all of our children. Then we talk about the type of person who Ernie was.

Then each month Bridgeport Elementary highlights a different character trait to study. During that month we ask the entire community (kids, staff, parents, grandparents etc.) to write letters that tell us how a student at Bridgeport has demonstrated the particular character trait. Then, at the assembly we give out Ernie Davis awards. Every student that ha a letter written about him/her receives a medal with Ernie’s picture, the number 44, and the trait of the month written on it. We pick 3 or 4 outstanding letters and read them to the audience. Those students receive an Orange 44 football jersey with the character trait of the month sewn on it along with their name. We literally have scores of kids that have won jerseys. We also have a segment of the assembly called “What would Ernie do?” We ask difficult character questions and then have children answer by thinking what would Ernie do. There is more to this than what I am writing here. He has become a part of the culture of our school.

Thank you,
Kevin Ellis
Character Education Co-chair
Bridgeport Elementary
May 25, 2007

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