Ernie Davis has been dead more years than he lived, and here you are calling me about him now. It's incredible. People still remember him and talk about him. The man touched everyone he knew. As great an athlete as he was, he was even a better person.
A friend of Ernie Davis's
The last night she ever saw him, they were sitting together at a table with candlelight in an Italian restaurant just off the campus of Syracuse University, near the hangout for black students, a bar called the Tippin' Inn, where they had met almost two years before. It was Friday night. May 3, 1963, an evening that she still recalls with sadness.
Helen Gott was a 20-year-old senior who would be graduating from Syracuse in one month with degrees in political science and journalism, and Ernie Davis...well, he was a handsome, 23-year-old former Syracuse football star—the first black player to be voted the Heisman Trophy—who was two weeks away from dying of leukemia in a hospital in Cleveland. Of course, Ernie never let on to Helen how sick he was, never in all the Sunday phone calls or throughout the days they shared or in the letters he sent to her.
"He would have really, really hated for me to feel sorry for him," she says now. "He didn't know I knew how sick he was. He would never want me to worry." She understood by then how grave his condition was, as everyone who knew him understood. He had the rarest, deadliest form of the blood disease, but that night in Syracuse was the first time she contemplated a life without him. Seen through the candlelight, as she still sees him now, he seemed sadder and quieter than she had ever known him, and then the waiter appeared and Davis ordered chicken livers for dinner.
"Why are you ordering that?" Helen asked.
"The doctor told me to eat this because it's good for my blood," he said. Her eyes filled, but she averted her glance, and he did not notice.
"I had this feeling of overwhelming sadness," she says. "He was trying to do all the right things. He'd never ordered chicken livers before. I was just feeling sad at dinner because I knew the chicken livers were not going to help, but he was being so conscientious about doing what the doctor told him to do, with the hope that whatever he could do would help. He was always upbeat. He never talked about anything being terminal. He always sounded like everything would be cleared up. Sitting there with him, for the first time I was thinking there was the possibility that he was going to die...."
Theirs had been a long, sweet romance, one in which they shared his final year of glory as a running back at Syracuse, when he was spinning and double-clutching through autumn's Saturday afternoons in Archbold Stadium, carrying the great Jim Brown's old number, 44, from one All-America team to the next, and breaking nearly all of Brown's school records on the way. Davis's final season in college, 1961, came in the first year of President John F. Kennedy's administration, as Martin Luther King Jr. was marching in the South and an inchoate civil rights movement was beginning to spread across the land.
On Dec. 4, the day Davis accepted the Heisman in ceremonies at the Downtown Athletic Club in New York City. President Kennedy happened to be visiting in Manhattan. Learning that Davis was in town, Kennedy asked to meet him. The two men shook hands outside the Grand Ballroom at the Waldorf-Astoria. Later that afternoon, a beaming Davis, seeing Syracuse coach Ben Schwartzwalder, went floating toward him through a crowd.
"Put 'er there, Coach," Davis said. "Shake the hand that shook hands with President Kennedy!"