Movie a Reminder of a 'Wonderful Man'
The year was 1961 and the Washington Redskins, with the worst record in the National Football League, had the first pick in the college draft. Their choice was simple. The owner, George Preston Marshall, under pressure from government officials to integrate his all-white football team, would draft Heisman Trophy-winning running back Ernie Davis from Syracuse.
"Only Davis [the first African American to win the Heisman] didn't want to play for the Redskins," remembered Pro Football Hall of Famer Bobby Mitchell, who was playing for the Cleveland Browns.
That left Art Modell, who owned the Browns, with an opportunity to acquire the best player in the college draft.
"When we found out Ernie Davis did not want to play in Washington, we traded Bobby Mitchell, who we liked, for Ernie," said Modell, who eventually moved his franchise to Baltimore to become the Ravens.
"My coach [the late Paul Brown] and I had visions of a backfield of Ernie Davis and Jim Brown to compete with Green Bay's Paul Hornung and Jimmy Taylor."
"Sadly," Modell added, "it never happened."
It never happened because Davis died on May 18, 1963, at age 23 of acute monocytic leukemia without ever playing for the Browns. Mitchell came to the Redskins in 1962 and had a memorable career in Washington mostly as a wide receiver (1962-1968) and front-office executive before retiring several years ago. He still lives in Washington.
Davis is back in the news with the recent release of the Universal Pictures film "The Express" about Davis's life. Rob Brown plays Davis in the movie, with Dennis Quaid in the role of Syracuse Coach Ben Schwartzwalder.
"I loved Ernie Davis," said Modell, who signed Davis in 1962 to a three-year, $200,000 contract. "He had no ego; a wonderful man. I never heard him once say, 'Why me?' It was all so sad. He died in front of my eyes."
The film is vivid in portraying the obstacles and racism Davis and other African Americans had to overcome as high school and college athletes.
It brings to mind the Sept. 19 football game in Cumberland, Md., in which Dunbar Coach Craig Jefferies pulled his team off the field in the third quarter of a game against Fort Hill, alleging members of Fort Hill's team taunted Dunbar players with racial slurs. Fort Hill players and coaches deny racial comments were made; the Justice Department investigated the incident and now has the teams in mediation.
"As far as we've come, with an African American running for president, these attitudes remain," said former NFL star Calvin Hill, who is a player relations consultant for the Dallas Cowboys. "I applaud the Dunbar coach for taking his team off the field; it probably prevented something worse from happening."