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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 symptoms of acute monocytic leukemia can include persistent fatigue and bleeding gums", as the blood-forming tissues of the body begin producing extremely high numbers of abnormal white blood cells. These cells collect in the lymph glands, causing swelling in the neck, and crowd out both oxygen-bearing red cells and platelets vital to clotting. The decline in the red-cell count causes fatigue, and the fall in platelet levels permits bleeding in the nose and gums.

Davis flew to Chicago to begin practice for the Aug. 3 game between the College All-Stars and the NFL champion Green Bay Packers. Davis was listless during workouts, and the All-Stars coach, Otto Graham, recalls, "We all just looked at each other and someone said, 'He's an All-America?' He had no pep. He wasn't showing us anything." Davis's teeth were bothering him, and he spent a day in a Chicago hospital to stem the bleeding that followed the removal of two wisdom teeth.

On Saturday, July 28, Davis felt a swelling in his neck, and he was admitted to Evanston Hospital, near the practice site at Northwestern University, with the fear that he may have contracted the mumps or mononucleosis. Doctors ran a test on his blood and found something much worse. Modell was at home in Cleveland when the doctor called and said, " Mr. Modell, I have some dreadful news for you about Ernie Davis."

Modell bolted up, thinking there had been an accident. "We've ruled out trench mouth and the mumps," he said. "He has a dreadful blood disorder, the worst kind of leukemia."

Modell winces today as he recalls that message. "It was like someone had stuck a knife in me," he says. "I couldn't believe it." So he denied it.

"I don't believe you," he said. "There's something wrong with your tests."

"I'm sorry," the doctor said.

Modell flew to Chicago immediately, drove to Evanston, conferred with doctors and checked Davis out of the hospital. Before leaving, Modell announced that Davis would not be playing in the All-Star Game, adding, "Doctors at Evanston Hospital are still completing tests that have diagnosed his condition as a blood disorder requiring extended treatment and rest." Davis and Modell flew back to Cleveland, where the player entered Marymount Hospital.

"Let's have a new round of tests," Dr. Victor Ippolito, the Browns' team physician, suggested. "Make sure they didn't mix his slides with someone else's."

They were grasping. Dr. Edward Siegler, a pathologist at Marymount, tapped a sampling of marrow from Davis's breastbone. "There was no doubt," Siegler recalls. "It was a routine, clear-cut diagnosis. I expected him to live no longer than six months or a year."

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