Davis made his name in Elmira, dashing up sidelines with the mail under his arm. At Syracuse, he came to be known as the Elmira Express, but that was really only his adopted town. Davis spent most of his formative, years in Pennsylvania. He was born in New Salem. Pa., on Dec. 14, 1939, and never knew his natural father. "Ernie's dad was killed in an accident before Ernie was born," says his mother, Marie.
Very young, out looking for a job and unable to care for Ernie, Marie Davis Fleming sent her only child, at the age of 14 months, into the care of her mother and father, Elizabeth and Willie Davis. They settled in Union-town, Pa., where Ernie grew up. Willie was a coal miner, the father of 12 children of his own, and rattling around in that huge family, Ernie acquired his notions of discipline, faith and home.
"My father was a strong disciplinarian," says Chuck Davis, one of Willie's sons and Ernie's uncles. "We all had time schedules. We had lunch at the same time. We had dinner at the same time. Don't be late or you didn't eat. We all ate at a big table and talked about sports and world events. We all dressed up neat—my father was a clean, neat dresser—and we all went to church on Sunday together. We were a family."
Ernie was quiet, gentle and shy when, at the age of 12, he showed up in Elmira, where his mother had resettled and called for him, and he began playing small-fry football. Big for his age—at 13 he was a rock-solid 145 pounds—he could have been a punishing football player against the smaller kids his age, but that was never his style. Al Mallette, the retired sports editor of the Elmira Star-Gazette, coached a youth team against him and still remembers the way Ernie tackled the Lilliputians who bravely dropped their heads and ran into him. "Ernie would just grab those little running backs and hold them in the air until the whistle blew," Mallette says. "No slamming them to the ground. No ego trip. He could have hurt them, but he didn't."
As consummate a football player as he became in high school—he averaged 7.4 yards per carry throughout his varsity career—those who witnessed his career at Free Academy believe that basketball was really his game. "Ernie was a much better basketball player than football player," says his old Free Academy coach, Jim Flynn. "He was a great jumper and rebounder. And he could shoot, too." By the end of his senior year, Davis had set an All-Southern Tier Conference career scoring record of 1,605 points, averaging 18.4 points a game, and in his final two years he led the team to 52 straight victories.
"He was the greatest chips-are-down player I've known," Flynn says. "But if we were running away with a ball game, you couldn't find Ernie out there. He wouldn't shoot or rebound." In his last year, in a game against intracity rival South-side High School. Free Academy had the game in hand when the Southside forward whom Davis was guarding, Billy Morrell, got loose for five quick baskets. Free Academy won, but Flynn went to Davis afterward and said, "I thought you let that guy go at the end."
"I've played against Billy for years and I respect him," Davis said. "His teammates weren't giving him the ball. I laid off him a little bit, and they had to give it to him."
Such was Davis's style. At the beginning of his junior year in high school, a young boy who had never played football tried out for the team. In the locker room the boy got so tangled up in his shoulder pads that he ended up putting them on backward. He grew red-faced as the cruel taunting began. "Next thing you know, Ernie is walking over there," says Harrigan. "He says, 'Here, let me help you with this. Don't be embarrassed.' A little thing? Maybe. But not to me, as a coach. It was a big thing, and I'll never, ever forget it."
And Davis did not suffer bullies gladly. In fact, in all the years that his best and oldest friends knew him, the only two times they ever saw him fly into a rage was when his old friend Frankie Cox, an athlete almost Davis's size, provoked him beyond his patience. The first time was at the Green Pastures Bar and Restaurant, a haunt in the black section of Elmira, where Davis came upon Cox pounding on a helplessly beaten man. Davis was extremely powerful, with a strong, wide upper body and tree-trunk legs, and he picked Cox up, literally, and carried him out the door. "In front of the Green Pastures was a tree," recalls Mickey Jones, one of Davis's closest friends, "and he took the guy out and pinned him against the tree and told him, 'I told you about getting in trouble. I want you to cool it.' "
On the other occasion, Cox was not so lucky. He and Davis were outside the Green Pastures again, and a young kid walked by. Cox grabbed him and kicked him in the rear. "Just booted him," says Howard Coleman, the proprietor. "Boom, like that."