Ernie Davis Day

by Rachel Dworkin

On the evening of February 3, 1962, around 1,400 people packed into the Notre Dame High School’s gym for the banquet in honor of Elmira’s favorite son, Ernie Davis. It was the last stop in what had been an action-packed day. The banquet was attended by such notables as state and local officials; teachers and coaches from EFA and Syracuse University; representatives from the Cleveland Browns and, of course, Davis’s mother. They were all there to pay tribute to his accomplishments and toast his up-coming career as a professional football player.

Although Ernie Davis is Elmira’s hometown hero, he wasn’t actually born here. He was born in New Salem, Pennsylvania and grew up in Uniontown. At the age of 12, he moved to Elmira with his mother and step-father. Here, he excelled at baseball, basketball, and football. While playing for Elmira Free Academy, he earned two All-American honors in basketball and football and was heavily recruited by colleges. He ended up attending Syracuse University where he played football and majored in economics and finance. In 1961, he became the first Black player to be awarded the Heisman Trophy. After graduating, he was recruited by the Cleveland Browns, signing the most lucrative contract of any NFL rookie up until that time. The citizens of Elmira could not have been prouder.

Planning for Ernie Davis Day began in late November 1961, shortly after Davis was awarded the Heisman Trophy. The day overall was going to be sponsored by the Elmira Association of Commerce with assistance from various fraternal groups and corporations. For months, the planning committee worked to schedule events, secure venues, and arrange speakers. They raised funds to buy Davis a new 1962 Thunderbird. 

Officially, Ernie Davis Day began at 2pm at the YMCA with a youth meet-and-greet sponsored by Pepsi-Cola. Unofficially, kids began to gather on the sidewalk outside as early as noon. By the time Davis and his friend and fellow football player Jim Brown showed up a little after 1:30pm, there were nearly 400 boys running around. By the time the meet-and-greet officially began, the number had swelled to 700. There were speeches by Ernie Davis, Jim Brown, EFA football coach Bill Wipfler, and others. Each child received a card autographed by Davis and Brown. A few lucky ones actually got to shake their hands.

Next, Ernie headed off to an informal press reception at the Notre Dame High School library along with the ever-present Jim Brown, plus coaches Ben Schwartzwalder of Syracuse University and Arthur Modell of the Cleveland Browns. They schmoozed for an hour or so until Governor Nelson Rockefeller arrived around 5:30pm and the real press conference began.  

Around 6pm, the crowd started gathering for the banquet. Speeches began at 9pm after everyone had eaten their fill and there were a lot of speeches. Governor Nelson talked. President Kennedy talked, or at least wired a toast to be read aloud on his behalf. There were toasts by Ernie’s high school and college friends, his teachers and coaches, the mayor, and the Star-Gazette sports writer who had coined the nickname “Elmira Express.”  All of them wanted to celebrate Davis’s accomplishments and the promising start to his pro football career.

Sadly, his promising career never came to be. In the summer of 1962, Davis was diagnosed with leukemia. Ernie Davis died in a Cleveland hospital on May 18, 1963 at the age of 23. His wake at Elmira’s Neighborhood House on May 21 drew over 10,000 mourners. His funeral featured speeches by many of the same teammates, friends, and coaches who had spoken at his banquet. Even President Kennedy sent a statement to be read aloud. It was, in many ways, a dark reflection of the earlier, happier Ernie Davis Day.

Rachel Dworkin is the archivist at the Chemung Valley Historical Society Museum. To learn more about the museum and to see more of their blog, click here.