Those were heady times for America's most celebrated college football player. At the end of the 1961 season the Cleveland Browns traded running back Bobby Mitchell and their No. 1 draft choice, halfback Leroy Jackson, to the Washington Redskins for Washington's first pick overall in the draft. Ernie Davis. The Browns would thus have two of the greatest running backs in college football history, Jim Brown and Ernie Davis, in the same backfield. Adding money to this magic, on Dec. 28, 1961, Cleveland owner Art Modell signed Davis to what was then the largest rookie contract in National Football League history—a three-year, $65,000, no-cut contract with a whopping $15,000 signing bonus.
Davis crowned his college career on June 2, 1962, when, having been chosen by the students as a marshal of his senior class at Syracuse, he led his classmates into graduation ceremonies.
"Some people would be boasting and bragging and loud about it," says Helen. "But he was grateful, humbled by it. It was just the beginning.... The most exciting things for him were yet to come. Playing pro ball. He looked forward to playing with Jim Brown. For Ernie, it was going to be a dream come true. He was on the threshold—the beginning of a long, exciting, wonderful life."
By the time Davis graduated, he had been Helen's steady beau for eight months. Helen had been to his hometown of Elmira, N.Y., to meet his mother, Marie, and he had spent weekends at her parents' home in East Orange, N.J. One day there, he gave Helen a 45-rpm record of Ruby and the Romantics singing Our Day Will Come, a sanguine melody of the times. "That was his favorite record." Helen says, "and when he would come by my parents' house, we would go down to the basement and play that over and over and dance. Our day will come."
It never did. In the end, what came instead was May 3, 1963, that Friday night, in the lonely gloaming of his life, when Ernie Davis ordered chicken livers and made the only promise to her that he would not keep.
"Promise me that you will come to my graduation?" Helen asked.
"I promise," he said.
His grave lies hard by a four-foot hedge in Woodlawn Cemetery in Elmira under a headstone that reads ERNIE DAVIS. His epitaph was written by the Downtown Athletic Club: HEISMAN TROPHY 1961. Elmira natives remember his funeral, on May 22, as the grandest ever held in the history of the city. For 12 hours the day before, the lines had been two blocks long as mourners filed by his open coffin in the Neighborhood House, a recreation center where Davis had played as a kid. For one entire day that city of 50,000 stood still. "Why, there were thousands here for the funeral!" recalls Marty Harrigan, Davis's high school football coach. "They came from all over. Hey, the Cleveland Browns flew in here, too."
Indeed, practically the whole Cleveland team, for which Davis never played a down, flew in to bid him farewell. "He was everybody's son, big brother or kid brother," Cleveland placekicker Lou Groza said at the time. Davis is remembered in Elmira with the reverence accorded a patron saint. His old high school, Elmira Free Academy, is now Ernie Davis Junior High. A city park named after him lies across the street from the school, and last year, to commemorate the 25th anniversary of his death, a citizens' committee led by Harrigan unveiled a striking, life-sized bronze statue of Davis in front of the school that bears his name. Every year on May 18, the anniversary of Davis's death, Harrigan buys a bouquet of flowers and places it on the grave out of a kind of paternal love.
"The flowers don't last, but Ernie does," Harrigan says with a shrug. "Twenty-six years. Every day I miss him. Every day I think about him. Every day!"