Special Ernie Davis Section - December 8, 2001 |
Davis never played a down for the Browns, but his impact shook the historic NFL team.
By STEPHEN P. JENSEN
Special to the Star-Gazette
In his autobiography, Paul Brown recalled No. 1 draft choice Ernie Davis joining the Cleveland Browns with just weeks of life ahead of him. Davis had been stricken with acute leukemia in the College All-Star training camp before joining the NFL team.
Provided by Chemung County Historical Society, Elmira|
Syracuse coach ,Ben Schwartzwalder hands off to Jim Brown, center, and Ernie Davis, two of the Orange's greatest running backs. If Davis had lived, he and Brown would have played together in Cleveland.
"Modell came to me one day and said, `Put him in a game, and let him play,' " Brown wrote, meaning team owner Art Modell.
Brown, a coaching legend whom sportswriters called "The Brain Trust," wrote that Modell said of Davis: "We have a big investment in him, and I'd like to get some of it back. It doesn't matter how long he plays, just let him run back a kick, let him do anything, just so we can get a story in the paper saying he's going to play and the fans will come to see him."
Brown had coached 45 years at all levels; won a national title at Ohio State; led the Cleveland Browns to 10 straight championship games; and won four consecutive All-America Football Conference titles, seven division crowns and three NFL championships. Modell fired him after the 1962 season, partly because of their differences over Davis, and replaced him with Blanton Collier.
Brown wrote in the 1979 book "PB: The Paul Brown Story" that Modell told him, "If (Davis) has to go, why not let him have a little fun?"
In a Washington Post review of the book, Modell declined comment, saying, "I am not talking about it to anyone."
But Dr. Vic Ippolito, the Browns' longtime team physician, defended Modell after the book was released. He said the owner wanted Davis to play for his own good, not for financial reasons.
"He wanted him to play because Ernie wanted to play football," Ippolito said, "and he knew he was going to die."
Today, Modell still wants no part of that story. Nor does he discuss the trade that brought Davis to the Browns and sent Hall of Famer Bobby Mitchell to the Washington Redskins so Cleveland could build what Modell today calls "the dream backfield that never came to pass."
"The trade isn't important," said Modell, now owner of the world champion Baltimore Ravens. "I think Mitchell was the first black player on the Redskins, so it may have been important from that standpoint."
But Modell likes to talk about Davis from a talent perspective, and on a personal level.
"It would have been the greatest backfield in the history of the NFL," Modell said, referring to a Davis-Jim Brown tandem. "We would have surpassed the Paul Hornung-Jim Taylor backfield for the old Green Bay Packers. We would have been better than that."
Jim Brown acted like an older brother to Davis. Both had starred at Syracuse, and Jim Brown had lured his heir apparent to play for the Orange.
Today, Jim Brown is regarded by many as the best runner the NFL has ever seen. In an interview, he said he loved Davis the man, but from a football perspective he never understood the trade with the Redskins.
"I thought it was a bad idea, myself," Brown said. "I thought Bobby Mitchell was the perfect complement to my style. Bobby was very different. He returned punts, kickoffs, he had outside speed. He was a touchdown guy. Ernie was the same as me.
"But all that aside," Brown said, "I knew that Ernie would be a great, great pro. I was excited to have him playing on the team with me."
John Wooten, a Cleveland offensive guard from 1959 to '68, would have opened holes for what he calls "the elephant backfield." Wooten was Jim Brown's roommate while the two played pro, and they remain friends.
Today, Wooten works for Modell as Baltimore's player personnel consultant. He knew Davis and remembers him fondly.
"Ernie was an excellent person and an outstanding player," said Wooten, who wants you to know that while Davis never played a down of pro ball, he was embraced by his teammates. The Cleveland Browns considered Davis one of them.
The summer after Davis was drafted, after he'd been diagnosed with leukemia, he traveled with a dozen or so Browns playing basketball in charity games.
"There was a period of remission," Wooten said, "and in that time Ernie played basketball with us, playing high school faculties, that sort of thing. He was a fine basketball player. We got to know him that way.
"The thing I recall most vividly is the fact that you never heard this guy complain about the illness. Never heard him say he got a tough break," Wooten said. "He always spoke in terms of being OK, coming back. He was so high-spirited. In all these years, I've never seen anyone like this kid. He was special, indeed."
Jim Brown and Ernie Davis were similar on the gridiron, employing a power game with bursts of speed. But Brown acknowledged that he and Davis had different approaches outside the lines, facing and sometimes attacking sensitive social issues.
"He was a strong man, a soft-spoken man," Brown said. "He didn't have to be as outspoken as me to get my respect. If he was a pacifier, that would have been different. Ernie Davis had a great gift, a way of touching people."
Modell began to see signs that something was wrong with Davis at a three-day Browns camp. He watched a listless back struggle through an All-American game in Buffalo.
"His performance lacked a particular amount of energy," Modell said, "and we were very concerned. He wasn't the back we had seen in Syracuse. Frankly, we were startled.
"There was a lack of quickness, speed. Then he went to the all-star game in Chicago, and that's when things fell apart."
Modell said he first heard Davis had the mumps. Perhaps a severe virus. Then the news came: Leukemia.
"I chartered a plane and we went to Chicago and got him and brought him back to Cleveland," Modell said. "I put him in the hands of a leading hematologist. I called every physician and quack all over the country to try to save him, and they couldn't find a way.
"He'd probably be living today if he were stricken with the same illness, with all the medications available now."
After Davis died on May 18, 1963, Modell flew a small army from Cleveland to Elmira for the funeral. He brought players, coaches, reporters and photographers, people from the front office, all to say goodbye to a man they never saw play pro football.
"There was an enormous outpouring of grief and respect," Modell said. "Ernie Davis was mourned by thousands and thousands of people lining the streets. I don't think the city of Elmira ‹ or opstate New York, for that matter ‹ ever experienced such a thing.
"I've never known a football player who was more courageous," Modell said. "Never in all my years of experience, and I go back 40 years (in the sport) now, no one comes close to Ernie Davis. He turned out to be one of my best friends in the short period of time I knew him."