Ernie “”The Express”” Davis (December 14, 1939 – May 18, 1963) was a running back and the first African-American athlete to win the Heisman Trophy. Wearing number 44, Davis competed collegiately for Syracuse University before being drafted by the Washington Redskins, then almost immediately traded to the Cleveland Browns in December 1961, when he was issued number 45. However, he would never play a professional game, as he was diagnosed with leukemia in 1962. He is the subject of the 2008 Universal Pictures movie biography The Express, based on the non-fiction book Ernie Davis: The Elmira Express, by Robert C. Gallagher.
Davis was born on December 14, 1939 in New Salem, Pennsylvania. From 14 months of age, Ernie was cared for by his maternal grandparents, Willie and Elizabeth Davis, in Uniontown, Pennsylvania. Davis played football for Syracuse University between 1958 and 1961, and went on to national fame for three seasons (1959–1961), twice winning first-team All-American honors. As a sophomore in 1959, Davis led Syracuse to the NCAA Division I-A national football championship, capping an undefeated season with a 23-14 win over the University of Texas in the 1960 Cotton Bowl Classic, where Davis was named Most Valuable Player. That same season, Elmira Star-Gazette sports writer Al Mallette coined the nickname for Davis, the “Elmira Express”. In his junior year, 1960, he set a record of 7.8 yards per carry and was the third leading rusher in the country with 877 yards, having rushed for 100 yards in 6 of 9 games. The 1960 Syracuse Orangemen finished with a record of seven wins and two losses and did not play in a post-season bowl game. In 1961, Ernie’s senior year, the Orangemen finished with a record of 8 wins and 3 losses, closing with a 15-14 victory over the Miami Hurricanes in the Liberty Bowl, played at Philadelphia’s Franklin Field. It is important to note that college football was using limited substitution rules at the time and players played both offense and defense.
Davis found discrimination prevalent in the American South during his Cotton Bowl Classic visit to host city Dallas, Texas. Author Jocelyn Selim writes that at the banquet following the 1960 game, Davis was told he could only accept his award and then would be required to leave the segregated facility. Davis and his black teammates were allowed to finish their meals at the banquet. When dessert was brought, a gentleman quietly approached them and told them they would have to leave when the doors were opened to the public for a dance. The three got up to leave and when the teammates found out, they wanted to leave too, but were told that it would only cause a bigger problem, so they stayed. A different account of the banquet is given by John Brown. He was Davis’ teammate at Syracuse and on the Cleveland Browns, his roommate and a close friend. According to an article in the Houston Chronicle, all the players from the game attended the banquet. Brown recalls that the teams sat on opposite sides of the room. After everyone ate and the trophies were handed out, the three black Syracuse players, including Brown and Davis were asked to leave and were taken to another party in Dallas by local NAACP representatives. One Syracuse player, Ger Schwedes, recommended that the whole Syracuse team leave the banquet to show solidarity with their black teammates, but the suggestion was overruled by Syracuse officials. When the Chronicle asked Brown whether the film is a truthful portrayal of his friend, Brown said ” … in short, no.”
During his time at Syracuse, Davis wore the same number, 44, as legendary Orangeman Jim Brown, helping to establish a tradition at the school that was acknowledged on November 12, 2005, when the school retired the number in an on-field ceremony. Davis also played basketball at Syracuse for one season 1960-1961. Syracuse University, as a way to honor all of the athletes that have worn the number 44, was granted permission by the United States Postal Service to change its zip code to 13244. While attending Syracuse, Davis was a member of the Sigma Alpha Mu Fraternity, a nationally recognized Jewish fraternity. Davis was the first African-American to become part of the organization not only at the Syracuse chapter, but for the national fraternity as a whole. Davis was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1979.
Davis was the number-one pick in the 1962 NFL Draft. Selected by the Washington Redskins, he was traded to the Cleveland Browns. He was also drafted by the Buffalo Bills of the American Football League. The Browns’ dream of pairing Davis with Jim Brown in the backfield took a tragic turn when Davis was diagnosed with leukemia during preparations for the 1962 American Football Coaches All-American Game in Buffalo, NY and also at Browns training camp. The rift between Coach Brown and Modell worsened when Modell brought in doctors who said Davis could play pro ball but Brown refused to suit him up. This contributed to Modell’s decision to replace Brown before the 1963 season. Ernie was allowed to practice on the field (without physical contact) and helped Brown with play plans for the team, but was never played. Brown was concerned that Ernie’s condition, although in a remission brought the morale of the team down. Davis never played a game as a professional, with his only appearance at Cleveland Stadium coming during a 1962 pre-season game, in which he ran onto the field as a spotlight followed him. Following his death, the Browns retired his number 45 jersey.
In the summer of 1962, Davis was diagnosed with acute monocytic leukemia and began receiving medical treatment. The disease was incurable and he died in Cleveland Lakeside Hospital May 18, 1963, at the age of 23. Ernie went to Johns Hopkins when he was dying, three months after being diagnosed and through chemical treatments experienced a 4-5 month remission. That was the time that the controversy between Paul Brown and Art Modell took place. Both the House and the Senate of the United States Congress eulogized Davis, and a wake was held at The Neighborhood House in Elmira, New York, where more than 10,000 mourners paid their respects. During the funeral, a message was received from President Kennedy, and was read aloud to all of the people attending the service. Davis is buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in Elmira, New York, the same cemetery in which Mark Twain is buried. His commemorative statue stands in front of Ernie Davis Middle School, which Davis attended as Elmira Free Academy during his high school years. The building was named in his honor after its conversion to a middle school. Another statue of Davis stands on the campus of Syracuse University, near the steps of Hendricks Chapel and the Quad where pre-game pep rallies are held. He was elected to the college football hall of fame in the Fall of 2008, coinciding with the premiere of The Express and the beginning of construction of Ernie Davis Hall, a dorm on the Syracuse campus.
Charlie Justice (May 18, 1924 – October 17, 2003) was a halfback in the National Football League for the Washington Redskins. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. Born in Asheville, North Carolina, Justice attended and played high school football at Lee H. Edwards High School (now Asheville, N.C., High School), where he was a part of two undefeated seasons. He averaged 25 yards per rush his last year in high school.His senior year, his team outscored the opposition 400-6. After high school, Justice spent four years in the Navy in World War II. During that time, he played on the football team at Bainbridge Naval Center. His nickname Charlie “Choo Choo” was given to him because of the way he dodges tackles. One of the officers remarked, “He looks like a runaway train, we ought to call him Choo Choo.”
After the war, Justice was heavily recruited by Duke, North Carolina, and South Carolina. He was quoted as saying that he believed that an athlete should play in the state that he is going to make his career in, so he chose the University of North Carolina. Being a war veteran, he knew he had no need of an athletic scholarship. Justice sent a proposal to both universities asking each to allow him to attend on his G.I. tuition money and give the scholarship to his wife. Only North Carolina accepted this. Thus Justice attended and played college football at the University of North Carolina under Carl Snavely, where he played tailback for four years. Justice was also an active member of the Beta Theta Pi fraternity in his years at UNC. While there, he was named an All-American in 1948 and 1949, and finished second in the Heisman Trophy voting both years. While at North Carolina, Justice ran or threw for 64 touchdowns and set a team total-offense record of 4,883 yards, which stood until 1994.
He was named the Most Valuable Player in the 1950 College All-Star Game, when he led the college team to a 17-7 win over the Philadelphia Eagles. He ran for 133 yards which was 48 yards more than the entire Eagles Team. He had runs of 33 and 45 yards and caught a pass for 40 yards. Justice was drafted in the sixteenth round of the 1950 NFL Draft by the Washington Redskins, but his professional career was hampered and ultimately cut short by injuries. In an exhibition game in 1952 in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum Justice rushed 11 times for 199 yards (18.1 average), with runs of 46, 65 and 54 yards. Curiously, he sustained a broken arm in the third quarter. After football, Justice owned an insurance firm. He and his wife, Sarah,had a son Ronnie and a daughter, Barbara. He died in 2003. In 1970, the University of North Carolina dedicated a section of its athletic center in his name, calling it the Charlie Justice Hall of Honor. He was also named one of the all time 70 Greatest Redskins. In 1999, Sports Illustrated named Justice the 14th Greatest North Carolina Sports Figure.
Nathan Dougherty (March 23, 1886 – May 18, 1977) was a Hall of Fame college football player for the Tennessee Volunteers football team. He later became the Dean of the College of Engineering at the University of Tennessee and chairman of its Athletic Council. For this as well as his playing days Dougherty is “considered by many to be the founding father of UT Athletics.” Dougherty was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1967, and was a unanimous choice for the Associated Press Southeast Area All-Time football team 1869-1919 era. Dougherty played football and basketball at the University of Tennessee. He came to the university from Scott County, Virginia. Dougherty played guard for the Tennessee Volunteers from 1906 to 1909, standing 6-foot-2 and weighing 185 pounds. Dougherty was a standout in the sport before it became wildly popular around the country. Of the few accolades that were bestowed on individuals, Dougherty was an honoree. He was named to the All Southern team in 1907 and 1908. The 1908 team was widely considered the best Tennessee football season up to that point. The backfield included Walker Leach. Vanderbilt coach Dan McGugin noted “All things considered, Leach was perhaps the best football player of the year in Dixie.” Dougherty was captain of the Tennessee Volunteers men’s basketball team in 1908–09. Dougherty coached the George Washington University’s basketball team during the 1914–15 season, and compiled a 5–9 record. Dougherty was dean of the University of Tennessee College of Engineering at Knoxville from 1940 to 1956. He was also the chairman of the UT Athletic Council from 1917 to 1956. An engineering building at the school is named after him. The building caught fire in November 2006, but was later reopened.Dougherty was instrumental in the establishment of the Southern Conference, being its first secretary-treasurer.