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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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Davis handed his roommate five dollars and flipped him the keys to his gray-and-black Edsel. "Now take that girl out and have a nice time," he said. Sylvia and John were married nearly three years later and are living today in California.

Helen Gott and Davis first met in the spring of his junior year, but they did not start going out until the next fall. Shy, reserved and deeply religious, she had never even considered dating one of those loud, boisterous football jocks. "I wasn't into that fast act." she says. "I didn't drink. I was a good kid who had a dad who was an Army colonel, and I was pretty sheltered. Ernie was different from those other football players, and that's what I liked. Ernie was a gentleman. He had a good balance between being gentle and manly. He didn't feel he had to prove his manhood by being overtly macho. He was not afraid to be gentle and considerate and open the doors."

Not long after they started dating, Helen took him home to meet her parents. She was an only daughter, and in the colonel's mind no man she had ever brought home was good enough. Until he met Davis, "This was the only relationship that he tried to coddle along." Helen says. "But then Ernie knew how to talk to parents. He talked sports with Dad. I have a pretty mother, and Ernie could be a little bit of a flatterer. I remember he made some kind of slang expression that nobody would know now. He said. 'Your mother's really sayin' a little taste.' It was an expression meaning 'foxy' now. When I told mother, she was flattered to death."

So was most of Cleveland when Davis turned his back on a substantially larger offer from the Buffalo Bills of the old American Football League and signed that $80,000 contract with the Browns. The Bills reportedly offered Davis a three-year deal worth well over $100,000. The Browns' front office crowed. "No college halfback playing today has his combination of size and speed." Paul Bixler, the Browns' chief scout, said. "He is one of the greatest running backs I have seen."

How Davis would have played off Jim Brown in that Cleveland backfield is only to be imagined. "Ernie was an elusive Jim Brown," says former Cleveland lineman John Brown, who played with Davis at Syracuse and roomed with him during Ernie's year in Cleveland. "Today Marcus Allen reminds me of Ernie. He was not as strong as Jim Brown, but stronger than Marcus Allen. On a scale of 1 to 10, Ernie's strength was a 9, Brown's a 10, Ernie could glide, he could reverse field, he could double-clutch and bowl you over. As to whether Jim would have resented him, I doubt it. As great as Jim was, I think Ernie's presence would have pushed him to even greater heights."

No one knows for sure when the trouble began, but those who knew Davis said they first saw a change in him at the Coaches All-America Game, an East-West matchup in Buffalo on June 29, 1962. He appeared sluggish and slow on his feet. "Bix, what's wrong with him?" Modell asked Bixler, sitting at the game. "He looks terrible."

"He'll be all right," Bixler said.

In the locker room after the game, Davis told John Brown, "I'm tired, John."

"Man, it was hot out there," said Brown. "I'm tired, too."

Davis returned to Elmira after the game and went to a cookout at Harrigan's house. He was not hungry and did not eat. "I'm a little tired," he told Marty. "My legs are tired. And my gums are bleeding. I've got to get my gums checked."

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