Ernie Davis has been dead more years than he lived, and here you are calling me about him now. It's incredible. People still remember him and talk about him. The man touched everyone he knew. As great an athlete as he was, he was even a better person.
A friend of Ernie Davis's
This is an article from the Sept. 4, 1989 issue
The last night she ever saw him, they were sitting together at a table with candlelight in an Italian restaurant just off the campus of Syracuse University, near the hangout for black students, a bar called the Tippin' Inn, where they had met almost two years before. It was Friday night. May 3, 1963, an evening that she still recalls with sadness.
Helen Gott was a 20-year-old senior who would be graduating from Syracuse in one month with degrees in political science and journalism, and Ernie Davis...well, he was a handsome, 23-year-old former Syracuse football star—the first black player to be voted the Heisman Trophy—who was two weeks away from dying of leukemia in a hospital in Cleveland. Of course, Ernie never let on to Helen how sick he was, never in all the Sunday phone calls or throughout the days they shared or in the letters he sent to her.
"He would have really, really hated for me to feel sorry for him," she says now. "He didn't know I knew how sick he was. He would never want me to worry." She understood by then how grave his condition was, as everyone who knew him understood. He had the rarest, deadliest form of the blood disease, but that night in Syracuse was the first time she contemplated a life without him. Seen through the candlelight, as she still sees him now, he seemed sadder and quieter than she had ever known him, and then the waiter appeared and Davis ordered chicken livers for dinner.
"Why are you ordering that?" Helen asked.
"The doctor told me to eat this because it's good for my blood," he said. Her eyes filled, but she averted her glance, and he did not notice.
"I had this feeling of overwhelming sadness," she says. "He was trying to do all the right things. He'd never ordered chicken livers before. I was just feeling sad at dinner because I knew the chicken livers were not going to help, but he was being so conscientious about doing what the doctor told him to do, with the hope that whatever he could do would help. He was always upbeat. He never talked about anything being terminal. He always sounded like everything would be cleared up. Sitting there with him, for the first time I was thinking there was the possibility that he was going to die...."
Theirs had been a long, sweet romance, one in which they shared his final year of glory as a running back at Syracuse, when he was spinning and double-clutching through autumn's Saturday afternoons in Archbold Stadium, carrying the great Jim Brown's old number, 44, from one All-America team to the next, and breaking nearly all of Brown's school records on the way. Davis's final season in college, 1961, came in the first year of President John F. Kennedy's administration, as Martin Luther King Jr. was marching in the South and an inchoate civil rights movement was beginning to spread across the land.
On Dec. 4, the day Davis accepted the Heisman in ceremonies at the Downtown Athletic Club in New York City. President Kennedy happened to be visiting in Manhattan. Learning that Davis was in town, Kennedy asked to meet him. The two men shook hands outside the Grand Ballroom at the Waldorf-Astoria. Later that afternoon, a beaming Davis, seeing Syracuse coach Ben Schwartzwalder, went floating toward him through a crowd.
"Put 'er there, Coach," Davis said. "Shake the hand that shook hands with President Kennedy!"
Those were heady times for America's most celebrated college football player. At the end of the 1961 season the Cleveland Browns traded running back Bobby Mitchell and their No. 1 draft choice, halfback Leroy Jackson, to the Washington Redskins for Washington's first pick overall in the draft. Ernie Davis. The Browns would thus have two of the greatest running backs in college football history, Jim Brown and Ernie Davis, in the same backfield. Adding money to this magic, on Dec. 28, 1961, Cleveland owner Art Modell signed Davis to what was then the largest rookie contract in National Football League history—a three-year, $65,000, no-cut contract with a whopping $15,000 signing bonus.
Davis crowned his college career on June 2, 1962, when, having been chosen by the students as a marshal of his senior class at Syracuse, he led his classmates into graduation ceremonies.
"Some people would be boasting and bragging and loud about it," says Helen. "But he was grateful, humbled by it. It was just the beginning.... The most exciting things for him were yet to come. Playing pro ball. He looked forward to playing with Jim Brown. For Ernie, it was going to be a dream come true. He was on the threshold—the beginning of a long, exciting, wonderful life."
By the time Davis graduated, he had been Helen's steady beau for eight months. Helen had been to his hometown of Elmira, N.Y., to meet his mother, Marie, and he had spent weekends at her parents' home in East Orange, N.J. One day there, he gave Helen a 45-rpm record of Ruby and the Romantics singing Our Day Will Come, a sanguine melody of the times. "That was his favorite record." Helen says, "and when he would come by my parents' house, we would go down to the basement and play that over and over and dance. Our day will come."
It never did. In the end, what came instead was May 3, 1963, that Friday night, in the lonely gloaming of his life, when Ernie Davis ordered chicken livers and made the only promise to her that he would not keep.
"Promise me that you will come to my graduation?" Helen asked.
"I promise," he said.
His grave lies hard by a four-foot hedge in Woodlawn Cemetery in Elmira under a headstone that reads ERNIE DAVIS. His epitaph was written by the Downtown Athletic Club: HEISMAN TROPHY 1961. Elmira natives remember his funeral, on May 22, as the grandest ever held in the history of the city. For 12 hours the day before, the lines had been two blocks long as mourners filed by his open coffin in the Neighborhood House, a recreation center where Davis had played as a kid. For one entire day that city of 50,000 stood still. "Why, there were thousands here for the funeral!" recalls Marty Harrigan, Davis's high school football coach. "They came from all over. Hey, the Cleveland Browns flew in here, too."
Indeed, practically the whole Cleveland team, for which Davis never played a down, flew in to bid him farewell. "He was everybody's son, big brother or kid brother," Cleveland placekicker Lou Groza said at the time. Davis is remembered in Elmira with the reverence accorded a patron saint. His old high school, Elmira Free Academy, is now Ernie Davis Junior High. A city park named after him lies across the street from the school, and last year, to commemorate the 25th anniversary of his death, a citizens' committee led by Harrigan unveiled a striking, life-sized bronze statue of Davis in front of the school that bears his name. Every year on May 18, the anniversary of Davis's death, Harrigan buys a bouquet of flowers and places it on the grave out of a kind of paternal love.
"The flowers don't last, but Ernie does," Harrigan says with a shrug. "Twenty-six years. Every day I miss him. Every day I think about him. Every day!"
Davis made his name in Elmira, dashing up sidelines with the mail under his arm. At Syracuse, he came to be known as the Elmira Express, but that was really only his adopted town. Davis spent most of his formative, years in Pennsylvania. He was born in New Salem. Pa., on Dec. 14, 1939, and never knew his natural father. "Ernie's dad was killed in an accident before Ernie was born," says his mother, Marie.
Very young, out looking for a job and unable to care for Ernie, Marie Davis Fleming sent her only child, at the age of 14 months, into the care of her mother and father, Elizabeth and Willie Davis. They settled in Union-town, Pa., where Ernie grew up. Willie was a coal miner, the father of 12 children of his own, and rattling around in that huge family, Ernie acquired his notions of discipline, faith and home.
"My father was a strong disciplinarian," says Chuck Davis, one of Willie's sons and Ernie's uncles. "We all had time schedules. We had lunch at the same time. We had dinner at the same time. Don't be late or you didn't eat. We all ate at a big table and talked about sports and world events. We all dressed up neat—my father was a clean, neat dresser—and we all went to church on Sunday together. We were a family."
Ernie was quiet, gentle and shy when, at the age of 12, he showed up in Elmira, where his mother had resettled and called for him, and he began playing small-fry football. Big for his age—at 13 he was a rock-solid 145 pounds—he could have been a punishing football player against the smaller kids his age, but that was never his style. Al Mallette, the retired sports editor of the Elmira Star-Gazette, coached a youth team against him and still remembers the way Ernie tackled the Lilliputians who bravely dropped their heads and ran into him. "Ernie would just grab those little running backs and hold them in the air until the whistle blew," Mallette says. "No slamming them to the ground. No ego trip. He could have hurt them, but he didn't."
As consummate a football player as he became in high school—he averaged 7.4 yards per carry throughout his varsity career—those who witnessed his career at Free Academy believe that basketball was really his game. "Ernie was a much better basketball player than football player," says his old Free Academy coach, Jim Flynn. "He was a great jumper and rebounder. And he could shoot, too." By the end of his senior year, Davis had set an All-Southern Tier Conference career scoring record of 1,605 points, averaging 18.4 points a game, and in his final two years he led the team to 52 straight victories.
"He was the greatest chips-are-down player I've known," Flynn says. "But if we were running away with a ball game, you couldn't find Ernie out there. He wouldn't shoot or rebound." In his last year, in a game against intracity rival South-side High School. Free Academy had the game in hand when the Southside forward whom Davis was guarding, Billy Morrell, got loose for five quick baskets. Free Academy won, but Flynn went to Davis afterward and said, "I thought you let that guy go at the end."
"I've played against Billy for years and I respect him," Davis said. "His teammates weren't giving him the ball. I laid off him a little bit, and they had to give it to him."
Such was Davis's style. At the beginning of his junior year in high school, a young boy who had never played football tried out for the team. In the locker room the boy got so tangled up in his shoulder pads that he ended up putting them on backward. He grew red-faced as the cruel taunting began. "Next thing you know, Ernie is walking over there," says Harrigan. "He says, 'Here, let me help you with this. Don't be embarrassed.' A little thing? Maybe. But not to me, as a coach. It was a big thing, and I'll never, ever forget it."
And Davis did not suffer bullies gladly. In fact, in all the years that his best and oldest friends knew him, the only two times they ever saw him fly into a rage was when his old friend Frankie Cox, an athlete almost Davis's size, provoked him beyond his patience. The first time was at the Green Pastures Bar and Restaurant, a haunt in the black section of Elmira, where Davis came upon Cox pounding on a helplessly beaten man. Davis was extremely powerful, with a strong, wide upper body and tree-trunk legs, and he picked Cox up, literally, and carried him out the door. "In front of the Green Pastures was a tree," recalls Mickey Jones, one of Davis's closest friends, "and he took the guy out and pinned him against the tree and told him, 'I told you about getting in trouble. I want you to cool it.' "
On the other occasion, Cox was not so lucky. He and Davis were outside the Green Pastures again, and a young kid walked by. Cox grabbed him and kicked him in the rear. "Just booted him," says Howard Coleman, the proprietor. "Boom, like that."
"What did you do that for?" Davis asked Cox.
"What the hell is it to you?" Cox snapped back.
Davis sprang on him like a cat out of a tree. "He hit him until Cox told him, 'I've had enough, I've had enough,' " says Coleman. "Just because he kicked this kid."
Children flocked to Davis. Over the years, he became a kind of Pied Piper for city kids. They followed him everywhere, clutches of them, wherever he walked across town. They watched him run for miles around Elmira in the summer heat, along the streets and stretches of park grass—his head up, shoulders straight, arms pumping.
Whenever Davis showed up at Green Pastures among the beer drinkers at the bar, Coleman would call out to the bartender, "Give the Reverend Davis a Coke," and Ernie would laugh with them. "He didn't smoke, he didn't swear, he didn't drink," Coleman says. At night, before going to sleep, Davis prayed in silence on his knees, his elbows resting on the bed. "We were all taught to do that," says Marie.
Davis was an ideal black football prospect at a time when racially skittish colleges were just beginning to integrate their teams. He was well suited to carry on at Syracuse, which Jim Brown had left three years before with these records behind him: 2,091 rushing yards in 361 carries, 5.8 yards per carry: 25 touchdowns; and 187 points scored. But Brown ran into more than tackling dummies and opposing linemen in his years at Syracuse. Shortly before he arrived, another black Syracuse football player, Avatus Stone, had scandalized the school by indulging in what was perceived at the time to be an unseemly social life. "He dated a blonde majorette," says Brown.
When Brown got to Syracuse, the caution light was on. "Don't be another Avatus Stone," he was warned. Brown toed the line, but in his way. He remained true to himself, an outspoken, strong and challenging personality, perhaps the only kind that could have survived the wary, uptight environment in which he found himself. Brown was watched as if he were an alien who had descended on the town in a pod from outer space.
"They didn't want me at the start. But they finally accepted me," Brown says now. "And we had some success. I set records. We went to the Cotton Bowl, got on national television, and I didn't mess with the white girls on campus. Then they gave me the privilege of helping them recruit Ernie Davis. That meant they had finally accepted black players and wanted black players. Here they had a chance to get a player that fit all the molds and parameters they had."
Indeed, Schwartzwalder recruited Davis tirelessly, with the help of Brown and an Elmira attorney and Syracuse alumnus. Tony DeFilippo, whose son, Ted, was a high school basketball teammate of Davis's.
Says Brown, "They got him: Ernie Davis. And Ernie made it beautiful for that new era of championship guys. Dynamite dudes, black guys, came to Syracuse after Ernie. Floyd Little and Jim Nance and others. It was fantastic. They could go there without losing their dignity. I was fighting every day at Syracuse to hold on to my dignity. I broke through, but Ernie created the new era. Ernie was Ben's man. Schwartzwalder loved him."
Indeed, they all did, from the moment he hit the campus and first suited up for freshman football. In all his 25 years as a college coach, Schwartzwalder says, he never met another player like him. "Ernie was just like a puppy dog, friendly and warm and kind." he says. "He had that spontaneous goodness about him. He radiated enthusiasm. His enthusiasm rubbed off on the kids. Oh, he'd knock you down, but then he'd run back and pick you up. We never had a kid so thoughtful and polite. Ernie would pat the guys on the back who had tackled him and help them up. And compliment them: 'Great tackle.' Even opponents had a kindly feeling for him. They'd come into the dressing room after the game to see him. Jim Brown, Floyd Little and Larry Csonka (another great Syracuse back of yesteryear] would knock you down and run over you because they didn't like you. You were enemy. Ernie didn't dislike anybody. He'd knock you down and run over you because of his enthusiasm. If there was ever a perfect kid, it was Ernie Davis. He was the best kid I ever had anything to do with."
And he could play, to be sure, as grindingly hard as any of them. In his sophomore year, Davis carried 98 times for 686 yards—seven yards a carry—and scored 10 touchdowns as Syracuse went undefeated in the regular season, 10-0, and won its only national championship. Davis pulled a hamstring several days before Syracuse was to meet Texas in the Cotton Bowl in the final game of the season, and there was some doubt as to whether he could even play. But play he did. On Syracuse's first possession, running back Ger Schwedes threw an option pass to Davis, who was running a deep pattern, and the young halfback, limping noticeably, took off down the sideline. Fearing that Davis would reinjure the hamstring, Schwartzwalder ran after him, screaming, "Slow down, Ernie! Don't pull it!"
Davis limped into the end zone, completing a 57-yard run and an 87-yard play from scrimmage that was then the longest touchdown pass in the history of any major bowl. And despite his tender leg, he kept on playing, both ways. It was a vicious, meanly played game, with Texas players baiting the Orangemen with racial slurs, but Davis played as if unfazed by them. He scored one more touchdown, set up a third with an interception from his defensive back spot and scored twice on two-point conversions. Syracuse won 23-14.
Two years later, after junior and senior years as an All-America, Davis was awarded the Heisman, which confirmed that he was the finest running back in college football. Brown's Syracuse records were now his—2,386 rushing yards, a 6.6-yard average per carry, 35 touchdowns and 220 points. Of course, he would be the most sought-after player in the NFL draft.
Davis had dreamed of playing professional ball for as long as he could remember, since the days of small-fry football in Elmira. And now, in his senior year, he was almost there. Davis and his college roommate, tight end John Mackey, used to talk for hours about the prospect. "We used to lie in bed at night when we roomed together, talking about what life would be like in the National Football League," says Mackey, a former Baltimore Colt. "What it would be like making money: having kids: taking care of our families, our parents. We were just kids, lying in bed and talking, wondering if we'd be friends forever."
"Oh, yeah," Davis said. "We will be friends forever."
Mackey and Davis first met when Mackey came to campus as a high school recruit, a year behind him. Davis told Mackey that they could room together if he chose Syracuse. "I thought he was kind of lonely," Mackey says. "Ernie was kind of a rookie by himself." They grew extremely close over the next three years. Davis and Mackey touched each other's lives in different ways. "I was the brother that he didn't have." Mackey says. In two separate ways Davis altered the directions of Mackey's life. Schwartzwalder had recruited Mackey as a running back, but Davis was so dominant at the position that Mackey faced the prospect of playing behind him until he left. The coach promised Mackey that he would wear number 44 when Davis graduated.
"I don't want to be number 44," Mackey told him. "I don't want to play behind anyone."
"You can either be a second-string halfback or a first-string tight end," Schwartzwalder said.
So Mackey became a tight end.
Davis also became a voice in Mackey's ear, urging him to be a gentleman. One evening Mackey met an attractive black student named Sylvia Cole, who asked him. "Why is it that black guys don't date any black girls on campus?"
That was easy, Mackey told her: "You have to have a girl in town: a) there is no curfew, and b) we can always get something to eat. We don't have any money."
Cole persisted, and to end the discussion, Mackey asked her out for Friday night. She accepted. "I wasn't planning to take her out," Mackey recalls. "I was just getting rid of her."
Word spread that they were going out, and Davis was among the first to hear about it. He asked Mackey about it, but Mackey waved him away. "Ah, man, forget that," he said to Davis.
"Hey, she's a real nice girl," Ernie told him. "You ought to take her out."
"If you think she's so nice, why don't you take her out?"
"I didn't ask her out—you did. Remember?"
"I didn't ask her out either," Mackey lied.
"That's not what I heard."
Mackey was cornered. "I don't have any money! So I can't take her anyplace. I don't have a car. You got the car. What am I going to do, take her for a walk?"
Davis handed his roommate five dollars and flipped him the keys to his gray-and-black Edsel. "Now take that girl out and have a nice time," he said. Sylvia and John were married nearly three years later and are living today in California.
Helen Gott and Davis first met in the spring of his junior year, but they did not start going out until the next fall. Shy, reserved and deeply religious, she had never even considered dating one of those loud, boisterous football jocks. "I wasn't into that fast act." she says. "I didn't drink. I was a good kid who had a dad who was an Army colonel, and I was pretty sheltered. Ernie was different from those other football players, and that's what I liked. Ernie was a gentleman. He had a good balance between being gentle and manly. He didn't feel he had to prove his manhood by being overtly macho. He was not afraid to be gentle and considerate and open the doors."
Not long after they started dating, Helen took him home to meet her parents. She was an only daughter, and in the colonel's mind no man she had ever brought home was good enough. Until he met Davis, "This was the only relationship that he tried to coddle along." Helen says. "But then Ernie knew how to talk to parents. He talked sports with Dad. I have a pretty mother, and Ernie could be a little bit of a flatterer. I remember he made some kind of slang expression that nobody would know now. He said. 'Your mother's really sayin' a little taste.' It was an expression meaning 'foxy' now. When I told mother, she was flattered to death."
So was most of Cleveland when Davis turned his back on a substantially larger offer from the Buffalo Bills of the old American Football League and signed that $80,000 contract with the Browns. The Bills reportedly offered Davis a three-year deal worth well over $100,000. The Browns' front office crowed. "No college halfback playing today has his combination of size and speed." Paul Bixler, the Browns' chief scout, said. "He is one of the greatest running backs I have seen."
How Davis would have played off Jim Brown in that Cleveland backfield is only to be imagined. "Ernie was an elusive Jim Brown," says former Cleveland lineman John Brown, who played with Davis at Syracuse and roomed with him during Ernie's year in Cleveland. "Today Marcus Allen reminds me of Ernie. He was not as strong as Jim Brown, but stronger than Marcus Allen. On a scale of 1 to 10, Ernie's strength was a 9, Brown's a 10, Ernie could glide, he could reverse field, he could double-clutch and bowl you over. As to whether Jim would have resented him, I doubt it. As great as Jim was, I think Ernie's presence would have pushed him to even greater heights."
No one knows for sure when the trouble began, but those who knew Davis said they first saw a change in him at the Coaches All-America Game, an East-West matchup in Buffalo on June 29, 1962. He appeared sluggish and slow on his feet. "Bix, what's wrong with him?" Modell asked Bixler, sitting at the game. "He looks terrible."
"He'll be all right," Bixler said.
In the locker room after the game, Davis told John Brown, "I'm tired, John."
"Man, it was hot out there," said Brown. "I'm tired, too."
Davis returned to Elmira after the game and went to a cookout at Harrigan's house. He was not hungry and did not eat. "I'm a little tired," he told Marty. "My legs are tired. And my gums are bleeding. I've got to get my gums checked."
The symptoms of acute monocytic leukemia can include persistent fatigue and bleeding gums", as the blood-forming tissues of the body begin producing extremely high numbers of abnormal white blood cells. These cells collect in the lymph glands, causing swelling in the neck, and crowd out both oxygen-bearing red cells and platelets vital to clotting. The decline in the red-cell count causes fatigue, and the fall in platelet levels permits bleeding in the nose and gums.
Davis flew to Chicago to begin practice for the Aug. 3 game between the College All-Stars and the NFL champion Green Bay Packers. Davis was listless during workouts, and the All-Stars coach, Otto Graham, recalls, "We all just looked at each other and someone said, 'He's an All-America?' He had no pep. He wasn't showing us anything." Davis's teeth were bothering him, and he spent a day in a Chicago hospital to stem the bleeding that followed the removal of two wisdom teeth.
On Saturday, July 28, Davis felt a swelling in his neck, and he was admitted to Evanston Hospital, near the practice site at Northwestern University, with the fear that he may have contracted the mumps or mononucleosis. Doctors ran a test on his blood and found something much worse. Modell was at home in Cleveland when the doctor called and said, "Mr. Modell, I have some dreadful news for you about Ernie Davis."
Modell bolted up, thinking there had been an accident. "We've ruled out trench mouth and the mumps," he said. "He has a dreadful blood disorder, the worst kind of leukemia."
Modell winces today as he recalls that message. "It was like someone had stuck a knife in me," he says. "I couldn't believe it." So he denied it.
"I don't believe you," he said. "There's something wrong with your tests."
"I'm sorry," the doctor said.
Modell flew to Chicago immediately, drove to Evanston, conferred with doctors and checked Davis out of the hospital. Before leaving, Modell announced that Davis would not be playing in the All-Star Game, adding, "Doctors at Evanston Hospital are still completing tests that have diagnosed his condition as a blood disorder requiring extended treatment and rest." Davis and Modell flew back to Cleveland, where the player entered Marymount Hospital.
"Let's have a new round of tests," Dr. Victor Ippolito, the Browns' team physician, suggested. "Make sure they didn't mix his slides with someone else's."
They were grasping. Dr. Edward Siegler, a pathologist at Marymount, tapped a sampling of marrow from Davis's breastbone. "There was no doubt," Siegler recalls. "It was a routine, clear-cut diagnosis. I expected him to live no longer than six months or a year."
No one told Davis what he had, and speculation was rampant as to what was wrong with him. In hopes of keeping the truth out of the news, where Davis might read it or hear about it, Modell and Dr. Austin Weisberger, Davis's hematologist, held a background meeting with the local press and wire service reporters, telling them the news and asking that they not write about it. No one did. On Aug. 8, Davis wrote a letter to Buz Stark, an old Elmira friend, reporting that he was feeling well in Marymount: "While I don't really have to be here for the treatments that they are giving me for my blood disorder, I am hoping and praying for a quick recovery that will enable me to rejoin the Browns that much quicker."
Davis underwent chemotherapy that fall, and by early October the leukemia had gone into remission. With Modell present, Weisberger called Davis into his office on Oct. 4, more than two months after the diagnosis, and finally told him exactly what disease he had. "Can it be cured?" asked Davis. Weisberger held out hope. Modell studied Davis's face. "Nothing," he says. "He sat there passively. No telling what was going on in his mind." Davis brightened when Weisberger told him that as long as the disease was in remission, he saw no reason why he shouldn't play pro ball.
In an article in The Saturday Evening Post shortly before his death, Davis wrote, "Now I knew what I was battling and that there was something to look forward to—football. That's what I thought when I was told I had leukemia."
His hope of playing football again proved illusory. After consulting Dr. James Hewlett, a hematologist at the Cleveland Clinic, Cleveland coach Paul Brown refused to allow Davis to suit up. The issue became a point of contention between Brown and Modell, with Modell's doctor advising that Davis could play, Brown's that he could not.
"Dr. Hewlett told me, 'Don't put him in; who knows what could take place,' " says Brown. "So I wouldn't do it. It would be difficult to put a guy in a game who you know doesn't have much time to live. It was one of the saddest things I experienced in all my years as a coach."
Davis never complained to anyone. Says John Brown, "My one regret is that I didn't have the clout, the insight or the maturity to speak up and say, 'Let him play." That bothers me to this day."
Davis carried on, thinking that he would conquer his leukemia. "He may have been sick," says John Brown, "but he had pride and did not want to be pitied. He emphatically thought he could beat that disease. Riding that wave, I thought he could beat it, too."
Modell called specialists from all over, seeking help. "I was determined to save his life," he says. "I tried everything, even quackery." Even that. A TV commentator in Cleveland, knowing how desperate Modell was, told him of a European doctor working in the basement of a Cleveland city hospital on a cure for leukemia. Modell and Ippolito visited the place. The doctor was surrounded by pans, coils, test tubes, boiling liquids. "It was like something out of a Boris Karloff movie," Modell says. "The doctor was a hunchback and looked like Quasimodo. It about scared the crap out of me."
They gave the doctor the records, which he studied, and then Modell asked, "Can you help?" The doctor nodded.
"What are you using?" Modell asked. "This is a very tragic case. We're not going to make a human guinea pig out of him."
"Horse serum," the doctor said.
"Horse serum?" blurted Modell.
"Serum from horses. An extract."
That's all Modell had to hear: "Vic, let's get out of here! I can't take this...."
Davis's leukemia remained in remission throughout the fall of 1962. In mid-December, in a snowstorm, Davis accompanied Schwartzwalder to the New Haven, Conn., home of Floyd Little, who had just finished his final, record-breaking season as a running back at Bordentown Military Institute in New Jersey. Little was wavering between Army and Notre Dame, until that night. "Boy, did Ernie make an impression on everybody in that house, my mom and sisters," he says. "I mean, 6'2", 215! Wearing a camel-hair coat and a stingy-brimmed hat. He had this big smile on his face, and he shook my hand and said, 'I understand we play the same position.' "
Schwartzwalder and Davis took Little to dinner that night, and after Little had finished his lobster, Davis waved him into the bathroom for a private talk. For nearly an hour, face-to-face, Davis sold Syracuse to Little. "Let me explain one thing to you," Ernie said. "You go to Syracuse, you'll get a chance to carry the football. The coach hates to throw." Davis went through it all that night—the life Syracuse offered for blacks, the tutoring services, the dorms, the campus, the tradition of number 44. "Jim Brown recruited me," Davis told him. "Now I've got to recruit the guy who's going to replace me. It's traditional."
Little went home leaning toward the Orange. Davis called him once in January and asked him what he was going to do. "You know I'm going to Syracuse," Little said. "My mom wants me to grow up just like you." Weisberger had announced in October that Davis had a "form of leukemia," but Little had read nothing about it, and did not know how ill Davis was.
The disease recurred in March, and Davis resumed regular visits to the hospital. Each time, he would call Modell and say. "I'm sorry, but I have to go into the hospital again." Or, "I know this is costing you a lot of money, but they want me in for another treatment."
Jim Brown could see the problems that Davis was having at the end, trying to stick the cotton up his nose, fumbling with it, tipping back his head. "I remember him touching the cotton up his nose, quickly, so no one would notice it," Brown says, "taking care of the nosebleed while not drawing attention to it. When he had to go to the hospital, which he felt was going to be the last time, I remember him touching the cotton and saying, "Hey, check you later.' I knew what he was doing. That he was really saying goodbye. And he went on in to die. To perform like an athlete and then face death without whimpering, to have great consideration of others and to know you're going to die and then to bow out with such grace—I've never seen anyone else do that."
Over the years, Brown had grown to respect Davis enormously, not just for his talent or his grace in parting but for what he represented, something that reminded him of Joe Louis.
"The greatest thing about Ernie Davis is that white people liked him and black people liked him," says Brown. "And I liked him, too, because I never thought of him as an Uncle Tom. I thought of him as a certain kind of spiritual individual, a true kind of spirit who had the ability to rise above things and deal mare with the universe, so that white people would forget their racism with him and black people would never think he was acquiescing to white people. And, you know, you have to be a bad sucker to do that, because usually you either line up on one side or the other. So Ernie Davis transcended racism. That was his essence. That was his greatness."
Davis left the others as quietly as he left Jim Brown. On Thursday, May 16, he wrote John Brown a note on a yellow legal pad: "Going to the hospital for a few days. Don't tell anybody. See you around."
That day he went to Modell's office, instead of calling him on the telephone, and told the owner he was going into Lakeside Hospital.
"You don't have to come down to tell me that," said Modell. "Call me when you get out. I want you to get busy and start lifting weights." The two men chatted briefly, shook hands, and Davis left.
On Friday night, in Lakeside, Davis lapsed into a coma, and at 2 a.m. on Saturday, he coughed once and died. Modell got the call early that morning: "The first thing that went through my mind, and still does, was Ernie coming to my office to say goodbye."
Floyd Little was in Bordentown when a friend told him the news. He had not been sure what he was going to do when he told Davis in January that he was going to Syracuse. He was still thinking of West Point and Notre Dame. But remembering what he had told Davis the last time they had spoken, Little made up his mind. "I did not want to lie to him." he said. So he called Schwartzwalder. "I'm coming to Syracuse," Little said.
For years, Helen Gott would not and could not listen to Our Day Will Come. And for years she could not talk about Ernie's death. Today, more than 26 years have passed and the pain is gone, if not the sadness. She is Helen Gray now, and she is the religion editor of The Kansas City Times. She is married and has a seven-year-old child.
She still has the mementos—Davis's letters to her, the photographs and the scarab bracelet and the gold cross and chain he gave her. And the memories of the two years they knew each other, the last dinner together and the Saturday he died. She was in her sorority house, Sigma Delta Tau, when two of her sisters came over and put their arms around her. She looked up and saw the university chaplain. And she knew.
"He's dead." she said.
She left the house to be alone. "I remember I went outside and sat under a tree. At that time, even with the faith that I had in God, it seemed unfair. It seemed like he had done all the right things. He had led a good life. He had overcome obstacles. He had excelled. He would be just a great role model. Not only for black youths, but for everybody. This was a truly good person. If he didn't ask the question—'Why me?'—I think I did. You know, "Why him? Why Ernie?