On December 6, 1961, Syracuse running back Ernie Davis becomes the first Black player to win the Heisman Trophy—college football’s top individual award—beating Ohio State fullback Bob Ferguson. Earlier in day, Davis meets with President John Kennedy at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York. “I never thought I’d ever be shaking the hand of the President of the United States,” he says.
As a senior in 1961, Davis rushed for 823 yards and scored 14 touchdowns. The previous season, he rushed for 877 yards as Syracuse won the national title.
Davis was the first pick in the 1962 NFL draft, by Washington, which traded him to the Cleveland Browns. But he never played in the NFL. Davis was diagnosed with leukemia later in 1962, and died on May 18, 1963. He was 23.
“When I look back I can’t call myself unlucky,” Davis wrote in The Saturday Evening Post in March 1963. “My 23rd birthday was December 14. In these years I have had more than most people get in a lifetime.”
Years after Davis’ death, Syracuse coach Ben Schwartzwalder called him “the best kid I ever had anything to do with.”
“Ernie was just like a puppy dog, friendly and warm and kind,” he told Sports Illustrated. “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.”