- The Washington Times - Monday, May 14, 2007

The Cleveland Browns’ prize rookie halfback and Heisman Trophy winner appeared sluggish and slow as he played in the Coaches All-American all-star game in Buffalo in late June 1962 — so much so that Browns owner Art Modell asked, “What’s wrong with him?”

Afterward, the player returned to his hometown of Elmira, N.Y., and told a friend, “I’m tired, and my gums are bleeding. I’ve got to get my gums checked.”

Five weeks later, the player flew to Chicago to begin practices for the College All-Star Game. Recalled Otto Graham, his coach: “We all looked at him, and someone said, ‘This is an All-American?’ He had no pep. He wasn’t showing us anything.”

With good reason. Ten months later, on May 18, 1963, Ernie Davis died of leukemia at 23 as football fans across the nation mourned.

Before tragedy struck, Davis was the hero of heroes on a football field. At Syracuse, he rushed for 2,386 yards and had 35 all-purpose touchdowns over three seasons while wearing the No. 44 that Jim Brown made famous earlier and Floyd Little would embellish later. At 6-foot-2 and 215 pounds, he seemed indestructible.

Meanwhile, the traditionally all-white Washington Redskins had been ordered to integrate by Interior Secretary Stewart Udall if they wished to continue playing in new, federally funded D.C. (later RFK) Stadium. In December 1961, the Redskins drafted Davis in the first round — and promptly traded him to the Browns for two running backs, All-Pro Bobby Mitchell and Cleveland’s own top pick, Leroy Jackson.

In Cleveland, fans and players grew giddy as the Browns signed Davis to a three-year contract later estimated to be a record $200,000. With Brown and Davis in the same backfield, they thought, the offense would be unstoppable.

The same month, at New York’s Downtown Athletic Club, Davis became the first black player to win the Heisman Trophy. President John F. Kennedy, also in Gotham, asked to meet him. Returning to Syracuse, Davis chortled to coach Ben Schwartzwalder, “Hey, Coach, shake the hand that shook the hand of the president.”

It was a giddy, glorious time. But all too soon, it ended — sickeningly.

On July 28, 1962, Davis felt a swelling in his neck and was admitted to Evanston (Ill.) Hospital near the all-star team’s practice site at Northwestern. He feared he had contracted mumps or mononucleosis. But after tests were conducted, a doctor called the Browns’ owner and said, “Mr. Modell, I have dreadful news about Ernie Davis. … He has a dreadful blood disorder, the worst kind of leukemia.”

Recalled Modell, still pained by the memory decades later: “It was like somebody stuck a knife in me. I couldn’t believe it.”

Nobody told Davis what he had, and Modell pleaded with newsmen not to print or broadcast the truth.

In August, Davis was introduced before a preseason game at Cleveland Stadium and drew a thunderous ovation from a crowd of more than 70,000. That fall, following chemotherapy, the leukemia went into remission, and Austin Weisberger, his hematologist, finally told Davis what the illness was.

“Can it be cured?” Davis asked. The physician said as long as the disease was in remission, he saw no reason why Davis couldn’t play football.

So would he indeed play? After consulting another hematologist, coach Paul Brown refused to let Davis suit up. The issue became a point of contention between Brown and Modell, who fired the famous coach the following January.

Modell summoned specialists from all over to treat Davis and subsequently said, “I tried everything, even quackery.”

The leukemia remained in remission through the fall of 1962 but returned the following March, forcing Davis to make frequent hospital visits. Each time he would call Modell and say, “I know this is costing you a lot of money, but [the doctors] want me to have another treatment.”

On May 16, Davis wrote former teammate John Brown, “Going to the hospital for a few days. Don’t tell anybody. See you around.” The same day, he went to Modell’s office. “Call me when you get out,” the owner said. “I want you to get busy lifting weights.”

One of Davis’ last visitors was Jim Brown, the Browns’ NFL’s perennial rushing leader.

“[As I left the hospital], he said, ‘Check you later,’ ” Brown recalled. “I knew what he was doing, that he was really saying goodbye. … To perform like an athlete and then face death without whimpering … to know you’re going to die and then to bow out with such grace — I’ve never seen anyone else do that.”

On May 17, Davis lapsed into a coma at Lakeside Hospital. The following morning, at 2 a.m., he coughed once and died.

Davis’ girlfriend, Helen Gott, was at her sorority house on the Syracuse campus when two friends came up and put their arms about her. When she looked up and saw the university chaplain, she knew. “He’s dead,” she said.

Years later, she recalled, “I went out and sat under a tree. It seemed unfair. He had done all the right things. He had led a good life. He had overcome [racial] obstacles. He had excelled. … He was a truly good person. If he hadn’t asked the question — ‘why me?’ — I think I did. … Why him? Why Ernie?”

Ever since, people have honored his memory. The entire Browns team flew to Elmira for his funeral, and the Browns retired his No. 45 uniform even though he never wore it. A middle school in Elmira is named for him. A movie of his life called “The Express” is in production. Yet the agonized and unanswerable question lingers: Why?

Some things, it is said, we are not given to know.

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