Tuesday, December 6, 2011

History's Spotlight

Perhaps it is fitting that this year's Heisman Trophy race is expected, by many observers, to be one of the closest ever.

Whoever the winner turns out to be, it's likely to be fodder for one of those "what–if" debates.

I suppose that is the most intriguing thing about the study of history — the wide variety of the "what if" questions.

You can find them taking many shapes in every human endeavor — politics, religion, sports, the arts, everything.

Most of the time, they are along the lines of the road not taken — sort of like the Burt Lancaster character in "Field of Dreams." But sometimes there are the tragic tales of those who did not live long enough to realize their full potential.

Today is the 50th anniversary of such a milestone in one such life story.

On this day in 1961, Ernie Davis was the first black man to be awarded the Heisman.

That isn't a "what–if" — unless you're thinking of the guys who were on the ballot with Davis.

It was the second–closest vote in Heisman history, with Davis beating the runnerup, Ohio State fullback Bob Ferguson, by only 53 votes.

Texas' Jimmy Saxton, Minnesota's Sandy Stephens and Alabama's Pat Trammell rounded out the top five.

It capped what must have been one of the greatest football careers of all time. In 1959, as a sophomore, Davis led Syracuse to a national championship and was named MVP of the Cotton Bowl. In 1961, as a senior, he was MVP of the Liberty Bowl, and everyone thought his career would continue into the NFL.

Davis seemed to be a great natural talent for whom the NFL was the next logical step. If the Super Bowl had existed at the time, speculation probably would have centered on when, not if, he would play in it — and how many times he would return.

In 1962, he was drafted by the Washington Redskins, who quickly dealt him to the Cleveland Browns. The Redskins were owned by George Preston Marshall, who was known to be racist.

The Redskins were the last NFL franchise to resist signing black players, which Marshall defended as being based on sound business strategy. He said he wanted to maintain good relations with the Southern market.

In Cleveland, Davis was expected to be paired with Jim Brown to form what may well have been the most potent running game in NFL history.

But no one will ever know how great that backfield could have been. In the summer of 1962, Davis was diagnosed with leukemia, and he died the following year at the age of 23. He never played a down in the NFL.

Brown was Syracuse's star halfback before Davis came along; in fact, Brown helped recruit Davis, who went on to break all of Brown's school records.

And Cleveland was reasonably successful even without Davis in the early to mid–1960s — until Brown retired. More than 40 years later, Brown was recognized as the greatest pro football player of all time by The Sporting News.

But other teams, most notably the Packers, climbed the mountain ahead of the Browns.

Davis played at a time when freshmen were not allowed to play varsity ball. In the three years that he could play varsity ball, he was named first–team All–America twice.

How much greater could the Browns have been with Davis in the backfield?

It may not be one of history's greatest "what–if" questions, but it's got to be near the top of the list for sports.

1 comment:

franchise for sale Ontario said...

I am a fan of Redskins! I love their teamwork and everything about them. Has great coach too.