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Special Ernie Davis Section - December 8, 2001     

Even in death, Davis became symbol of hope

By John P. Cleary

Two stories echoed throughout my childhood in Elmira.

Other topics of conversation came and went, but these two stuck. It was, I think, because they were our stories, ones in which our friends and families played parts.

One story was the flood of 1972. Hurricane Agnes drew a muddy line through the lives of people all over the Twin Tiers. Years later, the flood put everything instantly in context when my parents and neighbors talked. They said things like, "Well, since the flood he's worked at American LaFrance," or "Before the flood, there used to be a store on that corner."

The other was the tale of Ernie Davis.

My mother, who was a student at Elmira Free Academy the same time as Davis, was proud he signed her yearbook.

"He was just an ordinary guy," she always said, though she spoke of him with the same quiet reverence she used only when talking of departed relatives, or maybe JFK.

My sports-crazed father talked of wild road trips to Syracuse with his friends to watch Davis play. He talked of Davis' power inside ("His legs just kept pumping..."), his speed to the outside or his sure hands as a receiver out of the backfield. He projected what might have been if Davis had lived long enough to play pro football.

My grandmother talked about the day of Davis' funeral, how life seemed to come to a halt in Elmira in a way she hadn't seen since V-E day. Bells rang out across the city both days, but in 1945 there was dancing at the corner of Main and Water. In 1963, there was only a long line of cars inching their way down Church Street and up Walnut Street to that shady corner of Woodlawn.

The Flood and Ernie. Two tragic stories that, as a child, made me happy to be healthy and safe in our little house in Southport. Two stories that put Elmira on the national map, at least for a few days.

The flood changed us in tangible ways: people died, businesses closed, property was destroyed. In the months following, the people of Elmira and Corning and the rest of the Chemung Valley demonstrated an amazing ability to work, to adapt, to stand in the mud and still be able to look forward to a brighter future.

Davis' impact was a little more subtle.

Even as Elmirans mourned his death, Davis became a symbol to them of hope, determination and excellence. No really good athlete from our area will ever avoid the inevitable comparison with Davis. And if one should make waves on the national scene - and a few have - it will always be remembered that Davis was first (even if he wasn't).

Although many of the big civil rights fights still lurked in the future, Elmirans embraced Davis, the first African-American to win the Heisman Trophy, as their representative to the larger world. Except when talking of his Heisman status, I've never heard anybody make reference to Davis' skin color.

Some sunny day, take a drive over to the school they named for Davis, the same one where he walked the halls, occasionally favoring my mother with a smile as he passed. Look closely at the statue in front of the school. Get up close and study that bronze face staring off into the horizon.

See the confidence in the eyes? The strength in the set of that chin?

This isn't Ernie Davis the athlete, the Heisman Trophy winner, the NFL draft pick. It isn't Ernie Davis the stricken, the dying, the legend.

This is Ernie Davis the Elmiran. Hardworking. Adaptable. Eager for a better future, and ready and willing to work for it.

Like the rest of us. Like Elmira itself.

John P. Cleary is a former sportswriter and the current Neighbors columnist for the Star-Gazette. He can be reached by phone Monday through Friday at 607/271-8293 or 800/836-8970, or by e-mail at jcleary@stargazette.com

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