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Cleveland Stadium
"I'm not Unlucky" by Ernie Davis With Bob August
All-American Ernie Davis here tells the story of his youth, 
his manhood, his triumphs and his hard, lonely struggle 
against leukemia.
 
 

One day last fall I was standing outside a movie theater in downtown Cleveland when a stranger asked me, "Are you Ernie Davis?"

I didn't want any fuss. I said I wasn't. "Your lucky you're not," the man said, "Ernie Davis has leukemia. He won't live six months."

I turned and walked away. There was nothing I could say. For all I knew the man could have been right. I knew something was seriously wrong.

This thing happened so suddenly. One July day I was practicing football with the College All-Stars, going through final drills for a game against the Green Bay Packers. The next day I was in a hospital. For many weeks I was to be in that hospital, and others, without knowing why.

I was never in pain and I never felt sick. That was the hardest part. I would lie there, feeling good and strong, as if I should be able to leave and do what I wanted to do, which was play football for the Cleveland Browns, but I couldn't leave. Nobody knows much about leukemia. It's supposed to be a cancer of the blood. All I know is it hasn't made me feel sick.

What I remember most from last summer is waking up early in the morning and staring at hospital walls. There was nothing to do except think. At first, that was the worst part of it. It was a very lonely time.

In the beginning I had no idea what was wrong. Then I started getting letters from friends all over the country. They were trying to cheer me, but they wrote they had heard I had this or that, all the serious illnesses right down the line.

During all that time I didn't press the doctors to tell me what was wrong. Even now I am not sure why I didn't. The little things I heard people say, the uncertainties, were hard to live with. At the same time I think that down inside I was afraid of what the answer would be. So I put off asking the question.

 The waiting ended on October 4. Dr. Austin Weisberger, the specialist who was treating me, asked me to come to his office, as he had often done before. Dr. Vic Ippolito, the Browns' team physician, was there when I arrived.

We talked a few moments, and then Doctor Weisberger said, "Ernie, we think you are ready now to be told what your illness is."

I guess you always wonder what you would feel at a time like this. You might think something dramatic would happen, like a lot of things suddenly shooting through your mind. All I know is that it just wasn't that way with me. My mind had been conditioned by all the weeks of waiting.

The doctors talked to me very gently. They said my physical condition was excellent, that I had responded remarkably to treatment and that I had every reason to be encouraged.

Then Doctor Weisberger mentioned the word "leukemia" for the first time.

It's a word that jumps out at you, a frightening word. I can't imagine what my reaction would have been if they had told me my first days in the hospital. Now there was only the first shock, and that was all. For a long time I had realized leukemia was one of the possibilities.

The doctors explained that my condition was, "in a complete state of remission," that my blood count was as good as anybody else's. They told me to try not to worry. And, best of all, they said I could start practicing football. There was, they said, no reason I couldn't play.

When I left the office. I felt I had heard the worst. It was bad enough, but now I knew what I was battling and that there was something to look forward to--football. That's what I thought when I was told I had leukemia.

Someplace along the line you have to come to an understanding with yourself, and I had reached mine a long time before, when I was still in the hospital. Either you fight or you give up. For a time I was so despondent I would just lie there, not even wanting to move. One day I got hold of myself. I decided I would face up to whatever I had and try to beat it. I still feel that way.

Some people say I am unlucky. I don't believe it. And I don't want to sound as if I am particularly brave or unusual. Sometimes I still get down and sometimes I feel sorry for myself. Nobody is just one thing all the time.

But when I look back I can't call myself unlucky. My 23rd birthday was December 14. In those years I have had more than most people get in a lifetime. I think everybody wants some kind of recognition, something that will pick them out of a crowd and make people admire them.

There has been so much for me. I was the first Negro to win the Heisman award as the best collegiate football player in the nation. I made All-American teams. I led the graduation parade last June at Syracuse University, as the senior who had contributed most to the university, scholastically and athletically. From the time I started in sports, I always was the player who got the limelight, who had the nice stories written about him.

All this I gained merely by doing what I liked to do most. I worked to improve myself in sports, but the ability had to be there to begin with. That was a gift to me that made all the rest possible. That is why I can't say I have been unlucky.

During those weeks in a hospital bed I had plenty of time to look back over the happy years. Little things from far back seemed so clear, as if what occurred when you were trying to get someplace stayed with you better than what happened after you arrived. Games that had seemed so very big at Syracuse University sort of blurred together, and yet I could easily remember every detail of a Midget League baseball parade.

I was living in Uniontown, Pennsylvania, and to understand why the parade was so important you would have to know about my neighborhood. Some great athletes had come from around there. Stan Musial was from Donora and Johnny Lujac from Connellsville, both nearby, and the Big Ten and Notre Dame always recruited player form our district. Sandy Stephens and Bill Munsey, who went to become football stars at the University of Minnesota were on the same playground with me. We pretty much lived on the playgrounds. Sports were the only recreation we had.

When I was eight, the Midget League was organized, and Sandy Stephens and I tried out for a team named the Bensons, which was backed by a clothing store. We wouldn't settle for anything else because the Bensons had the best uniforms, ones like the Dodgers wore, and we had never had real uniforms. We walked four or five miles to each tryout, and then back again.

The age limit was eight to twelve, so I barely qualified, and a lot of kids were out for the Bensons, but I was tall and could hit the ball a long way if they tossed it up easy.

The Bensons had only 15 uniforms, and my special goal was to be wearing one when the Midget League paraded through town to open the season. At the last tryout the coach told me I was the 15th man on the team. I could just imagine the looks on my buddies faces when I came by in that uniform.

I arrived early the day of the parade. For some reason the coach couldn't make it and there was a mixup in passing out the uniforms. I didn't get one. I couldn't believe it. I kept standing around, trying not to cry. Finally the parade took off. I can still see the way they looked, marching up the street, marching up the street and out of sight without me.

It was my first big disappointment in sports. Not many have hurt that much and, while it seems amusing now, I still l can understand how I felt. Nothing seemed as important to us as succeeding in athletics. We wanted to play so badly that season. Sandy and I kept walking the eight to ten miles to and from practice, and we never did get in more than a couple of innings, late in the games.

I lived with my grandmother in Uniontown until I was 11. My mother was separated from my father, whom I never knew and who was killed in an accident. My mother had moved on to Elmira, New York, and at 11 I moved there. I liked Elmira, especially the way it had sports programs organized for kids.

I was one of the few freshmen ever to play a varsity sport at Elmira Free Academy, and I remember my first game because of an unusual circumstance. I played varsity basketball with a broken wrist in a cast.

I had broken my left wrist in the first minute of my first game of junior varsity football, which was the last time I was sidelined with an injury. I went out for the basketball team anyway, and the coach took one look at the cast and said I couldn't play. I kept hanging around, and finally he gave in.

I didn't start the first game, but midway in the opening quarter the coach sent me in. I wasn't any scared little kid. At 15, I was already six feet and 175 pounds, and I had been playing organized sports since kindergarten. I scored 22 points, and from then on I was a regular.

The honors started coming fast. We had good teams; in fact our basketball team set a state record by winning 52 straight, and I got used to being the big guy. I was an end and then a halfback in football, and I made all-state and high school All-American in football and basketball both my junior and senior years.

Almost from the beginning at Syracuse University I found I had drawn a tough role. I would pick up the papers, even when I was still a freshman in 1958, and see myself referred to as "another Jim Brown." Jim, the great fullback with the Cleveland Browns, had played his final season at Syracuse in 1956. When I entered Syracuse I knew this much: I wasn't another Jim Brown. I wasn't that good.

But I don't think they were disappointed with me at Syracuse. I broke 10 of Jim's records, including the ones for rushing, total yardage and scoring. I was a regular halfback from the start as a sophomore on a team that went undefeated and won over the University of Texas in the Cotton Bowl, and in one game that year I scored two touchdowns against West Virginia. I led the team in rushing all three years and made All-American as a senior.

So I had every reason to expect a good offer to play pro football. I had no idea how good it would be.

On December 29, 1961, in San Francisco, where I was practicing for the East-West Shrine game, I sat down in a room full of reporters and photographers and signed a contract that was called the largest ever given to a football rookie up to that time. At the table with me were Anthony DeFilipo, my lawyer and friend from Elmira, and Arthur Modell, owner of the Cleveland Browns. The contract would net me a $15,000 bonus and $65,000 over three years. While the photographers were shooting pictures, a reporter asked me what I had in my pockets, I pulled out 16 cents.

That was a happy day to look back on, and there seemed to be no end to the success and good fortune coming my way. But sometimes you see a football game in which one team gets every break, then all of a sudden everything goes the other way. It happened to me, and change came almost from the start of 1962.

There certainly was no hint of problems ahead when I returned to classes at Syracuse in January. But then my college life began to change. I would go to classes and when I returned there would be messages for me to call this person or that person, from all over the country. I would sit down at night to study and there would be more calls. They all wanted me to appear at banquets, to speak or accept awards. I began to realize what it meant to be the Heisman winner and an All-American.

I found myself leaving college almost every Friday and not getting back to campus until Sunday, traveling all over the East and Midwest. Finally I reached a point where I decided I had to get some time to sit down, relax and enjoy myself. I stopped making appearances in April. Even then, after graduation in June, I felt worn down.

I was scheduled to report for practice for the All-American Bowl game, which was in Buffalo on June 29. I would have liked to skip it, but I didn't think I could without stirring up a fuss. The game turned out to be a personal disappointment, even though our eastern team won. I was used mostly as a blocker and got to carry the ball very little.

After that I reported to Hiram, Ohio, on July 8 for the Browns preliminary training camp, and from there I went directly to Evanston, Illinois to join the College All-Stars for their game against the Packers on Friday, August 3.

Things still were not going well. Two wisdom, teeth which started bothering me in Buffalo, had become worse. I also had contracted trench mouth. I went into the hospital to have the teeth pulled and missed the first three days of All-Star practice. Even after I rejoined the team, my mouth was very sore. I hadn't enjoyed a meal for a month.

Surprisingly enough I was in good football condition, and when I told the doctors this after going into the hospital, they had a hard time believing me. My wind was up and I could run a long time without tiring. The week before the All-Star game I was our leading rusher in a scrimmage against the Chicago Bears.

On the Tuesday before the All-Star game I woke up and found the side of my face had blown up where a tooth had been pulled. A trainer sent me to the Evanston hospital. Even then I was certain I would play against the Packers. Of course I did not. Instead I was started on the long ordeal that took me to Marymount Hospital in Cleveland and the National Institute of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, and left me with the questions for which there would be no answer for so long.

I left Doctor Weisberger's office the day I learned I had leukemia and stepped into the October sunshine. Everything looked brighter. Even knowing what I did, I felt relieved. I felt almost free and easy, as if something that had been pressing down on me for weeks had suddenly been lifted.

The public announcement of my illness was made the next day, along with the news that I was to start working out. The plan was for me to undergo an individual conditioning program for three of four weeks. After that I was supposed to start practicing with the team. The Browns still had 11 games to play. I hoped to be ready for the last part of the season.

It helped merely being around the players again. They acted as if nothing had happened. They never mentioned my illness. I was always perfectly at ease with them, and thoughts of my problems didn't enter my head. I was living in an apartment with John Brown, a tackle who had been in my class at Syracuse, and Charley Seales, a halfback. The only lonely times were the weekends when the team played out of town.

Each day the Browns practiced I was there working out by myself, running and throwing the ball. Weeks went by, and my condition kept improving. After a month I felt I was as ready as I ever could be without actual competition. Still nobody said anything to me, and I was not practicing with the team.

When only three games remained, Mr. Modell called me in. He told me as kindly as he could that it had been decided that I would not be allowed to play at all for the Browns in 1962. That wasn't the end of it. In January Mr. Modell replaced Paul Brown as coach, and that really stirred things up. A lot of the stories said that a disagreement over playing me had been a big factor. I think that part was blown up out of proportion. The Browns had been through a generally disappointing season. I do know, however, that Paul Brown personally didn't think that I should play, even though the doctors did, and that was why I never got to practice with the team. Maybe he thought I couldn't make up for all the lost time. Maybe he had other reasons. Whatever his reasons were he never told me.

But I certainly hold no ill will toward him. I can understand he had plenty of other problems. In the few dealings we had, he treated me very well.

Now all this is in the past and, as far as I am concerned, forgotten. I am keeping fit playing with the Browns basketball team. I am looking toward the future. I have been promised that if the doctors still approve, I will be with the Browns when training opens in July.

I have no big ideas that I could start right out being an outstanding halfback in the National Football League. Pro defenses are so much tougher. A running back like myself has a lot to learn, things like timing, knowing the holes and the opposing teams' personnel. Even Paul Hornung and Jim Taylor didn't do too much their first seasons at Green Bay. Jim Brown, of course, was great from the start, but he is the exception to everything.

I know some people have wondered whether it would be fair to the other teams to let me play, whether the opposing players would be reluctant to tackle me as hard as they would somebody else. I am sure it wouldn't make any difference. In the heat of the contest they would forget there ever had been anything wrong with me. If I felt differently, I wouldn't play.

As I sit in my house in Cleveland now and look out the window, it seems a long time until July. But I have become accustomed to waiting.

I remember the night at the Evansville hospital when they told me I couldn't play in the All-Star game. Mr. Modell, who has been a good friend to me, came to my room and, I guess, I sort of broke down and shed some tears and got very emotional. I thought I had either the mumps or mononucleosis and that I might have to wait a couple of months to play football. That seemed like the end of the world.

It is hard to explain how I feel about football. The money isn't too important, because the Browns have promised to pay me even if I never play again. A lot of things go into it: the excitement, the physical contact, the skill, the crowds.

But the big thing to me in football has always been the competitiveness. Sometimes when the game is close and the play is roughest you forget the crowd and the noise, and it is just you against somebody else to see who is the better man. This is what I liked and took pride in the way I could do and, after all the waiting, I want my chance to do again.

For me 1962 was a long year, and I hope I never have to go through another like it. I think I have faced up to my problems and now I am looking ahead and trying to prepare for my future as if nothing happened.  THE END

  "I'm not Unlucky" by ERNIE DAVIS SATURDAY EVENING POST. Copyright March 30, 1963 by BEN FRANKLIN LITERARY & MED SO. Reproduced with permission of BEN FRANKLIN LITERARY & MED SO. in the format Internet via Copyright Clearance Center.
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