50th anniversary celebration of Ernie Davis’ Heisman in New York City Friday

December 8, 2011

A celebration of the 50th anniversary of Syracuse University alumnus Ernie Davis ’62 becoming the first African American to win the Heisman Trophy will be held Friday, Dec. 9, in New York City. Syracuse University will honor Davis for his impact on and off the field with a program featuring historic sports figures. The event will begin at 7 p.m. in the New York Historical Society Museum in New York City. To commemorate the event, Vice President Joseph R. Biden L’68 will deliver remarks.  Following his remarks, there will be a film tribute to Davis and a panel discussion addressing the evolution of diversity and equal rights in athletics.

Ernie Davis logoThe master of ceremonies for the evening will be Marv Albert ‘61, a classmate of Davis’s at Syracuse. The panel discussion, “Breaking Barriers, Building Dreams: The Landmark Achievement of Ernie Davis,” will be moderated by sportscaster Len Berman. Participants will include: Dave Bing ‘66, mayor of Detroit and Basketball Hall of Fame inductee; Frank Deford, Hall of Fame sportswriter, author and commentator; Mike Garrett, the second African American to win the Heisman Trophy; Billy Hunter ’65, executive director of the NBA Players Association; Floyd Little ’67, College and Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee; and Art Monk ’80, Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee.

Fifty years ago, the Civil Rights Act was three years from becoming a reality. It would be four years until voting rights of all Americans were protected by federal law. But an unassuming sports hero was about to play an important, yet unintentional, role in the burgeoning civil rights movement. On Dec. 6, 1961, SU running back Davis was awarded the Heisman Trophy. It was the first time in history that an African American was honored as the best college football player in the country, even though blacks had participated in the game since the late 1800s.

The panel will discuss what it took to reach that milestone and how far our society’s approach to diversity and equal rights has evolved since that landmark achievement, as SU commemorates and celebrates an event that helped shape the course of history.

Ernie Davis ’61
Nicknamed the “Elmira Express,” Davis was the first African American to win the prestigious Heisman Trophy. During his Syracuse career, the two-time All-American led SU to the 1959 National Championship as a sophomore and to the Liberty Bowl title against Miami in 1961. After Syracuse, Davis was drafted by the Washington Redskins and almost immediately traded to the Cleveland Browns in 1961. His life and career were cut short by leukemia, diagnosed in 1962. He died in 1963 at the age of 23.

President Kennedy sent the following telegram to Davis in 1963 after a celebration of Davis’ achievements in Elmira, N.Y.: “Seldom has an athlete been more deserving of such a tribute. Your high standards of performance on the field and off the field reflect the finest qualities of competition, sportsmanship and citizenship.  The nation has bestowed upon you its highest awards for your athletic achievements. It’s a privilege for me to address you tonight as an outstanding American, and as a worthy example of our youth. I salute you.” In the fall of 1979, Davis was posthumously inducted into the National Football Foundation’s College Football Hall of Fame. He was named to Syracuse University’s All-Century team in November 1999.

Event Participants

  • Marv Albert ’61: Award-winning American television and radio sportscaster Albert was a classmate of Davis’s at Syracuse. He has been honored for his work as a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame and is commonly referred to as “the voice of basketball.”
  • Len Berman ’68: A native of Brooklyn and a fixture in New York City television for 30 years, Berman is currently seen on NBC’s “Today Show” with his popular feature “Spanning the World.” Berman was a weekday evening sports anchor for WNBC- TV (1982-2009), and was a popular sportscaster at NBC and ESPN.
  • Dave Bing ’66: Mayor of Detroit and Basketball Hall of Fame inductee, Bing played 12 seasons in the NBA, primarily for the Detroit Pistons (1966-75). He was a seven-time All-Star. A consensus All-American in 1966, Bing was the second overall selection in the 1967 NBA Draft. He established the Bing Group with four employees in 1980 and built it into a multi-million dollar conglomerate.
  • Frank Deford: A senior contributing writer for Sports Illustrated, Deford is also an author and a commentator for National Public Radio and correspondent for Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel on HBO. He is the recipient of numerous national awards for his work in sports journalism, including induction into the Sportswriters Hall of Fame.
  • Mike Garrett: The 1965 Heisman Trophy winner and two-time All-American, Garrett was a tailback for the University of Southern California. He was the second African American in history to win the Heisman Trophy. Garrett played professional football for eight seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs and the San Diego Chargers and then served as athletics director at his alma mater from 1993–2010.
  • Billy Hunter ‘65: Executive director of the National Basketball Players Association (NBPA), Hunter is a former wide receiver for the NFL’s Washington Redskins and Miami Dolphins. He earned his law degree and became one of the youngest U.S. Attorneys in history. Since 1996, Hunter has been the executive director of the NBA Players Association. While an undergraduate at Syracuse, Hunter joined the Orange football team as a freshman when Ernie Davis was a senior. He helped organize the school’s boycott of southern schools whose stadiums were segregated. Hunter is an emeritus member of the Syracuse University Board of Trustees.
  • Floyd Little ’67: A College and Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee and three-time All-American, Little donned the hallowed No. 44 for the Orange, which was handed down from Jim Brown to Ernie Davis to Little. A first-round draft pick by the Denver Broncos in 1967, Little starred for the team for nine seasons and became one of the first players honored in the Broncos Hall of Fame. The recipient of more than 18 professional athletic achievement awards and more than 30 distinguished community service awards during his career, Little joined SU in July as the special assistant to the athletics director.
  • Art Monk ‘80: A Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee, Monk was a four-year Syracuse letterwinner and still ranks in the top 10 on several school career record lists. The recipient of countless awards in pro football, Monk played for the Washington Redskins, the New York Jets and the Philadelphia Eagles. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2008, recognizing his 16-year NFL career, which included three Super Bowl championships, three Pro Bowl selections and two All-Pro honors. A current member of the Syracuse University Board of Trustees, Monk is a respected business leader and community service activist.