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A Life Cut Short
William Nack
September 04, 1989
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. —JACK MOORE A friend of Ernie Davis's
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September 04, 1989

A Life Cut Short

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"The greatest thing about Ernie Davis is that white people liked him and black people liked him," says Brown. "And I liked him, too, because I never thought of him as an Uncle Tom. I thought of him as a certain kind of spiritual individual, a true kind of spirit who had the ability to rise above things and deal mare with the universe, so that white people would forget their racism with him and black people would never think he was acquiescing to white people. And, you know, you have to be a bad sucker to do that, because usually you either line up on one side or the other. So Ernie Davis transcended racism. That was his essence. That was his greatness."

Davis left the others as quietly as he left Jim Brown. On Thursday, May 16, he wrote John Brown a note on a yellow legal pad: "Going to the hospital for a few days. Don't tell anybody. See you around."

That day he went to Modell's office, instead of calling him on the telephone, and told the owner he was going into Lakeside Hospital.

"You don't have to come down to tell me that," said Modell. "Call me when you get out. I want you to get busy and start lifting weights." The two men chatted briefly, shook hands, and Davis left.

On Friday night, in Lakeside, Davis lapsed into a coma, and at 2 a.m. on Saturday, he coughed once and died. Modell got the call early that morning: "The first thing that went through my mind, and still does, was Ernie coming to my office to say goodbye."

Floyd Little was in Bordentown when a friend told him the news. He had not been sure what he was going to do when he told Davis in January that he was going to Syracuse. He was still thinking of West Point and Notre Dame. But remembering what he had told Davis the last time they had spoken, Little made up his mind. "I did not want to lie to him." he said. So he called Schwartzwalder. "I'm coming to Syracuse," Little said.

For years, Helen Gott would not and could not listen to Our Day Will Come. And for years she could not talk about Ernie's death. Today, more than 26 years have passed and the pain is gone, if not the sadness. She is Helen Gray now, and she is the religion editor of The Kansas City Times. She is married and has a seven-year-old child.

She still has the mementos—Davis's letters to her, the photographs and the scarab bracelet and the gold cross and chain he gave her. And the memories of the two years they knew each other, the last dinner together and the Saturday he died. She was in her sorority house, Sigma Delta Tau, when two of her sisters came over and put their arms around her. She looked up and saw the university chaplain. And she knew.

"He's dead." she said.

She left the house to be alone. "I remember I went outside and sat under a tree. At that time, even with the faith that I had in God, it seemed unfair. It seemed like he had done all the right things. He had led a good life. He had overcome obstacles. He had excelled. He would be just a great role model. Not only for black youths, but for everybody. This was a truly good person. If he didn't ask the question—'Why me?'—I think I did. You know, "Why him? Why Ernie?

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