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Ernie Davis Collection

An inventory of his collection at the Syracuse University Archives


Creator: Davis, Ernie, 1939-1963.
Title: Ernie Davis Collection
Dates: 1959-2015
Size: 3 boxes (5 linear feet)
Abstract: The Ernie Davis Collection includes personal items, printed material, and memorabilia.
Language: English
Repository: University Archives,
Special Collections Research Center
Syracuse University Libraries
222 Waverly Ave., Suite 600
Syracuse, NY 13244-2010


Portrait of Ernie Davis

Ernie Davis attended Syracuse University from 1958 to 1962 and was a star player on the University’s football team. In 1961 he was the first African American to win the Heisman Trophy.

Davis was born in Uniontown, Pennsylvania in 1939 and lived with his grandparents. At the age of 12 he moved to Elmira, New York with his mother. He attended Elmira Free Academy for high school, where he earned a total of 11 varsity letters in football, basketball, and baseball and was named All-Conference, All-State, All-Eastern, and All-American. Davis was offered scholarships from various universities for his talents, but in the end chose Syracuse University. During his decision process, he was briefly visited by former Syracuse football star Jim Brown and Coach Ben Schwartzwalder. The two urged him to choose Syracuse, but it was ultimately the guidance of his family and good friend Tony DeFilippo that aided in his decision.

In 1958, Davis started at Syracuse University with majors in economics and finance and became a brother of the Sigma Alpha Mu fraternity. He played football with the freshman team and was a dominant force in practice and scrimmage. Being 6’2”, about 210 pounds, and markedly quick, Davis quickly became a notable presence on the football field.

Davis joined the varsity football team as a sophomore in 1959, donning the famous number “44.” During his first varsity season the team went undefeated and earned its only national championship at the 1960 Cotton Bowl Classic. Davis was named the Most Valuable Player for the championship game, memorably scoring a touchdown on an 87-yard halfback option pass from Ger Schwedes, the team captain. Davis was also named the East’s Sophomore of the Year and ranked 11th in the nation. The size and power he demonstrated in this season are what ultimately earned him his nickname, “The Elmira Express.”

In his junior year (1960-1961), Davis continued to show his talent. For his junior football season, Davis scored 10 touchdowns, rushed for a team-high 877 yards, and set a record of 8.7 yards per carry. The Football Coaches Association, the United Press International, The Sporting News, and ABC-TV all granted him All-American honors. During this year, Davis also played one season of basketball and was named one of the two senior class marshals.

Photograph of Ernie Davis on the field

For his senior season in 1961, Davis was named to the All-East football squad by the Associated Press, earned All-American honors, and broke Jim Brown’s records for total yardage, rushing, scoring, and touchdowns. The Liberty Bowl in Miami was one of the most memorable games of the season, where Davis gave an MVP performance by earning the team 15 points in one run, taking them to a 15-14 lead. At the end of the season, he was picked by the Touchdown Club to earn the Walter Camp Memorial Trophy as the top college player of 1961. Davis was also awarded the Heisman Trophy in November of 1961, becoming the first African American to win the award. While in New York City accepting the award, Davis famously accepted an invitation to meet President Kennedy.

Davis was the number-one pick in the 1962 National Football League (NFL) draft and was initially selected by the Washington Redskins. He was ultimately traded to the Cleveland Browns, joining his Syracuse predecessor Jim Brown. In December of 1961 Davis signed a three-year contract with the Browns for $80,000. At this time this was the highest contract ever announced for an NFL rookie.

In January of 1962 Davis was awarded Back-of-the-Year by the Associated Press and in February his hometown of Elmira celebrated “Ernie Davis Day.” Davis graduated from Syracuse University in early June and went to Illinois to practice for the upcoming 1962 American Football Coaches All-American Game. During training, he reported having sore teeth and visited the hospital for a checkup. Davis ended up spending the next three months in various hospitals without knowing what his illness was. On October 4th he was finally told by his doctor that he had leukemia, but that it was in a complete state of remission and he would be able to play football again. Once out of the hospital, Davis attended every Cleveland Browns practice, but trained separately from the team and ultimately did not play in the 1962 NFL season.

Despite his illness, Davis remained an active figure. In December 1962 Davis helped to recruit future number "44" Floyd Little for the Syracuse University football team. He also kept fit by joining the Cleveland Browns off-season basketball team in January of 1963. He also briefly worked as a marketing trainee for Pepsi-Cola Co. while he prepared to join the Cleveland Browns in their next training season in July.

By February of 1963, however, Davis’ leukemia had slipped out of its remissive state. Davis died on May 18, 1963.

In January of 1979 Ernie Davis was named to the National Football Foundation’s College Hall of Fame. Davis has also been memorialized through various organizations, foundations, scholarships, games, and a residence hall on the Syracuse University campus.

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Scope and Content

The Ernie Davis Collection contains printed materials, memorabilia, awards, and Davis' personal items. The three books of the collection are about Ernie Davis' life and football career. The memorabilia includes figurines, pins, and collecting cards, as well as materials from the Ernie Davis Football Club. The certificate from Davis' induction into the National Football Foundation's Hall of Fame is also included. Personal items in the collection include one of Davis' jerseys and a trophy awarded for Outstanding Player of the Syracuse vs. Colgate game of 1961.

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Access Restrictions

Please note that the collection is housed off-site, and advance notice is required to allow time to have the materials brought to the Reading Room on campus.

Use Restrictions

Written permission must be obtained from the Syracuse University Archives and all relevant rights holders before publishing quotations, excerpts or images from any materials in this collection.

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Related Material

The Syracuse University Archives holds information about Ernie Davis in the Clipping Files, Photograph Collection, Portrait Collection, Syracuse University Slide Collection, and in the 1959 Championship Football Team Collection.

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Selected Search Terms


Davis, Ernie, 1939-1963.
Syracuse University -- Football -- History.
Syracuse University -- History.
Syracuse University -- Students.
Syracuse University.


African American football players.
College students.
Football players.
Higher education.

Types of material

Collecting cards.
Trophies (objects)

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Administrative Information

Preferred Citation

Preferred citation for this material is as follows:

Ernie Davis Collection,
University Archives,
Special Collections Research Center
Syracuse University Libraries

Acquisition Information

The Syracuse University Athletics Office transferred the jersey to the University Archives in 2016.

Processing Information

Items have been rehoused in archival boxes.

Finding Aid Information

Created by: Maggie Teschler
Date: 2016
Revision history: 2019 - Materials added and finding aid rearranged and style updated (NP)

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The collection is arranged in alphabetical order.

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Box 1 50th anniversary celebration pin 2011
Box 1 Collecting cards 1992 (3)
Box 1 Heisman Trophy miniature replica undated
Box 1 Ernie Davis figurine 1999
Ernie Davis football club memorabilia
Box 1 Pin undated
Box 3 Tie 1983 (2)
Box 1 Watch 1992
Box 3 National Football Foundation and Hall of Fame certificate 1979
Personal material
Box 1 Outstanding player - Syracuse Colgate trophy 1961
 Ernie Davis Trophy
Box 2 Jersey, signed by Ernie Davis 1959 - 1962
 Ernie Davis Jersey
Printed materials
Box 3 Boys' life for all boys magazine October 1960
Box 1 Cleveland's bitter pill: a diagnosis of injured title dreams and die-hard fans by Joseph Congeni, MD 2015
Box 1 Ernie Davis: the Elmira express, the story of a Heisman Trophy winner by Robert C. Gallagher 1983
Box 1 A halo for a helmet: the life of Ernie Davis, the Elmira express by K. Coralee Burch 2009

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