Special Ernie Davis Section - December 8, 2001 |
The Ernie I knew
By Al Mallette
This column was first published on May 19, 1963, the day after Ernie Davis died of leukemia at age 23. Al Mallette, who was sports editor of the Star-Gazette at the time, covered Davis athletic achievements from youth leagues through his Heisman Trophy career at Syracuse University. Mallette, now retired and still living in Elmira, gave Davis his nickname: the Elmira Express.
Star-Gazette file photo|
Al Mallette with Ernie Davis during the player's freshman season at Syracuse. Davis, then on the jayvees, joined the varsity the following year.
I'll never forget Ernie Davis nor will the many other Elmirans who had associations with him. We have memories of a player who gave us sports thrills from Small Fry days through All-America and Heisman Trophy days at Syracuse. They are grand memories, too.
There are the memories left by Ernie the man the unselfish, modest, shy, almost humble young man who brushed aside clinging and growing fame because he wanted to be one of the boys.
I was one of the fortunate ones to have known Ernie his 10 years in Elmira, from his first Small Fry days in September 1953 until his expected, though untimely and shocking, death Saturday morning (May 18, 1963) in Cleveland Lakeside Hospital.
Ernie was big as a Small Fryer and, although he wanted to carry the football, he welcomed just playing and was installed at tackle on the Superior Buick team.
Although bigger and stronger, he never once hurt the smaller boys he played against.
Ernie moved to junior varsity football at Elmira Free Academy, but that phase of his career was short-lived. Ernie broke his wrist in the first game and was out for the season.
Despite this, his coach, Harold Waite, put Ernie on a high pedestal when he prophesied: If you think Ernies good in basketball, wait until you see him as a varsity football player. Hes really something.
Ernies basketball debut in a game at Endicott sent writers back to the office buzzing about this phenomenal EFA frosh who was to break every basketball scoring record in Southern Tier Conference history.
Ernie, playing with a wrist cast, tallied 22 points in the U-E game. He was on his way.
Davis led Jim Flynns Blue Devils to 52 straight victories as a junior and senior and tallied an STC record 1,605 points.
There was the night at the State Armory when Ernie tallied an intracity record 36 points and the Armory fans both Academy and Southsiders gave him a standing ovation when Ernie, head bowed, jogged off the floor to the bench.
I remember the oohs and aahs over Ernies classic runs up and down Parker Field, and many scouts who sat and watched in amazement as Ernie shook loose, bowled over, then ran away from would-be tacklers.
There was the Saturday afternoon in the Parker Field clubhouse prior to the battle of the unbeatens between EFA and Binghamton Central. Coach Marty Harrigan, giving his usual inspiring talk, reminded Ernie and his teammates, that he (Ernie) was a marked man in this one. When Marty finished, the team rose as a unit, gave a lusty cheer, roared onto the gridiron and proceeded to mop up the field with Central players as Ernie had a field day.
I remember when Ernie and his EFA mates were stricken with the Asian flu in the 1957 epidemic and how they went to Vestal unbeaten and took a merciful lacing from the speedy, healthy Bears but everything Ernie did was applauded.
The next week, Central pounded EFA, but Ernie was in on practically every play. So gallant was his fight that even Central fans gave him a standing ovation.
Ernie always liked youngsters and was first in line when it came to doing something to help out the little fellows.
Like the nights he took off from studies and athletics to officiate Grasshopper basketball games at Riverside School, talking with the boys, posing for pictures and signing autographs.
Baseball scouts, too, were impressed with Ernie, although Ernie thought baseball was his third-best sport.
There were four or five scouts sitting behind the plate at Dunn Field one afternoon when Ernie belted one off the fence against Southside. One scout said, Harness that power, correct that swing a little and this boy could be a major-leaguer. Hes got everything else size, speed, throwing arm. I guess were wasting our time, though. They tell me hes all football.
Ernie admitted, Football is my first love.
And football fans loved Ernie, too football fans from Elmira to Syracuse, to Miami, to Dallas, to Los Angeles, to Hawaii, to New York, to Philadelphia, yes, and even South Bend, Ind.
Everywhere Ernie went, football fans followed.
Ernie never brushed them aside, either, regardless of how tired he was. Ernie always had a pen for an autograph, a word for a youngster and always a thank you because he was so honored these folks thought enough of him to ask for an autograph.
I vividly recall the time in Pittsburgh when the Orange was to play the Panthers. My wife, Teresa, and I and the Red Colpitts of Elmira were having breakfast when Ernie and Jerry Skonecki walked up. They could have lunched with their teammates. Instead, they sat and chatted with us.
A person could go on and on about Ernies brilliant playing days at Syracuse the Colgate and Penn State games as a sophomore ... the Pittsburgh series ... the Cotton Bowl game against Texas, and Ernies record-breaking pass catch and run ... the game against Army in Yankee Stadium ... the Liberty Bowl against Miami ... and so many more.
There are some little things never to be forgotten about Ernie.
Like the Army colonel in the Yankee Stadium press box shouting, If Syracuse doesn't want to run Davis, give him to us. Well run him into an All-America.
The hushed silence at the All-America awards dinner in the Waldorf-Astoria as Ernie, late because his plane was snowed in at Syracuse, entered the banquet room and even his fellow All-Americans applauded him.
The tremendous impact of the Heisman Trophy dinner at the Downtown Athletic Club in New York ... Ernies meetings with President Kennedy, Gov. Rockefeller and Lt. Gov. Malcolm Wilson ... Bob Hope and all the other dignitaries Ernie met during his travels.
For Elmirans, the biggest day of all was Feb. 3, 1962 Ernie Davis Day in Elmira.
What a day it was!
Those who followed Ernie never will forget it.
He met with the youngsters at the YMCA and the adults at Notre Dame High and was honored by more than 1,500 at ND, including Gov. Rockefeller, that Saturday evening.
No one will forget that appreciative smile and the short, short speech Ernie delivered when he was handed keys to a Thunderbird automobile from his Elmira friends.
The first boos I ever heard against Ernie came during the introductions at the All-America Game in Buffalo that year. Reason for the boos was because Ernie had spurned a Buffalo Bills offer to sign with the Cleveland Browns.
And when Ernie failed to live up to the press clippings, the boos grew louder as the game progressed. But Ernie never complained about them. His comment in the dressing room afterward was, Ive never heard those before, but then, I didnt play too well, either.
Ernie and I chatted several times after the news broke that he had leukemia. Each time, Ernie was so enthusiastic that he would whip the disease and be back playing football, that you almost believed he would, too though you knew in your heart that Ernie never again would be a part of his first love.
That was Ernie, though.
His loss is tragic, but he has left moral standards which should serve as a model guide for youth not only in Elmira but throughout the nation.