Today’s blog was written by Kevin L. Bradley, Archives Technician in the Motion Picture, Sound, and Video Division at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland
In 1961, Ernie Davis became the first African American to win the Heisman Trophy. He was an intelligent and talented athlete from Syracuse University. Born on December 19, 1939 in Elmira, New York, Davis was a standout high school athlete at the Elmira Free Academy.
Davis faced many challenges and celebrated many successes during his collegiate years at Syracuse University. As a student-athlete, he had to balance issues of racism, sportsmanship, and academics. In 1960, Davis played in the Cotton Bowl Classic against the Texas Longhorns in Dallas, Texas. He and the other African-American players had to endure ugly racial slurs, as well as having objects thrown at them from the Longhorn fans and players. Despite the distractions of the game, Davis ran for one touchdown and caught a record-setting 87-yard touchdown pass, as well as intercepted a pass that led to a 3rd Orangeman touchdown. Syracuse defeated Texas 23-14 and Davis became the Cotton Bowl Classic MVP.
Davis was awarded the Heisman Trophy in 1962, which was presented by the New York Athletic Club. After winning the Heisman Trophy, Davis had the honor to meet one of his biggest fans, President John F. Kennedy at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City.
In 1962, Ernie Davis was drafted by the Cleveland Browns, who acquired the pick from the Washington Redskins. Unfortunately, he never played a game in the National Football League (NFL). Shortly after he was drafted, Davis was diagnosed with a highly toxic form of leukemia. Ernie Davis died on May 18, 1963, he was only 23.