ERNIE DAVIS HUNKERED down in a three-point stance, legs spread wide apart, tail low, eyes fixed straight ahead. His whole body was under tight control as he lunged forward, driving off his left foot.
The flashy, high-scoring Syracuse halfback was giving me a personal demonstration of his takeoff form. The "practice field" was the floor of the comfortable living room in his family home in Elmira, New York. While I watched, Ernie explained what he was doing, and why.
"Hereís the secret of the fast start," he said, leaning into the stance again. "You tilt your body forward just a little, then drive hard off your left foot. See? But with all the deception in T-formation football itís important to stay fairly low the first few steps behind the line too."
Itís difficult to imagine a more emphatic authority on the subject of fast starts, or pulling the trigger on touchdown runs, than likeable, 20-year-old Ernie Davis. A popular pre-season choice for All-American honors, Ernie and the big Syracuse team are expected to bolt through the schedule and into another bowl game.
On the summer day I visited him, he was dressed in white buck shoes, khaki slacks and a checked sports shirt. He spoke right to the point. During our talk he disappeared twice -- once to help his mother carry some groceries in from the car, another time to bring us glasses of cold orange juice.
Even in his street clothes Ernie looked formidable: six feet two inches tall. 210 bruising pounds, long legs roped with muscle, a wide-shouldered torso pegged to a flat 33-inch waist. Yet he still wasnít satisfied with himself.
"Next week I start lifting weights." He said.
"Why?" I asked.
"Well, I want to increase my shoulders some."
"More hitting power on blasts into the line."
From where I sat Ernieís shoulders already bulged with muscles. But that weight lifting program says much about his approach to life. Ever since Ernie first began competing, he has done everything possible to sharpen his colossal skills
In season the big Syracuse star lets nothing interfere with is dedication. He sleeps at least ten hours a night curbs his appetite for rich pastries and sweets, drinks enough milk to float a cow. And he never smokes or indulges in so much as a beer, either in or out of season.
"If Iím in better condition than the other fellow I have a real advantage on him," Ernie explained. "I have that crucial extra step, or a quicker start, or more boom."
Even fellow players are sometimes surprised by Ernieís total concentration in practice sessions. It isnít so much that he makes it a rule to run instead of walk, even between plays, although thatís a part of it. Itís also that Ernie has been known to stay out long after the others go in, calling signals to himself for starts, working on tightrope runs along the sidelines, trying stop-and-go pass patterns.
"Ernie is wonderfully coachable," Syracuse coach Ben Schwartzwalder had told me earlier. "He always wants to improve."
While talking with the former First Class Scout, I couldnít help but notice a glittering assortment of trophies stacked in a bookcase against one living room wall. They filled four shelves, 26 cups and plaques, among them the Most Valuable Player award from the Cotton Bowl.
"It looks like youíre going into the jewelry business," I said.
"NO, no." Ernie was plainly embarrassed. "They donít mean much."
Maybe not, but I asked which trophy or which experience was the one that lingered longest in his memory. He must have a particular moment that stands out beyond the others.
"Iíve had so many exciting things happen to me and so many thrills itís hard to pick out one special time," he said. "I havenít forgotten any of them, mind you, but the good ones blur together-even the older ones from right over there."
He waved a powerful arm toward the front window. Across the street, beyond a play yard, stood the high school Ernie attended. Even now, more than two years after his graduation people still recall his prep career with a sense of wonder.
Surely his "oh-boy" feats at Elmira Free Academy will stand for along time to come. Not only did he dazzle the opposition in both football and baseball three memorable years, but he played four seasons of varsity basketball as well-and led the team to a state championship.
Yet Ernie always liked football the most. Until the middle of his junior season he was a regular end, and a good one-big, strong, blinding fast. But after he grew to 185, 190, then 195 pounds without losing any of that runaway speed, the coach naturally realized that heíd make an even more threatening halfback. Game after game halfback Davis whooshed to long-run touchdowns.
By the time his high school career came to an end the bookcase was crowded with trophies. Among other honors, Ernie was named all-conference, all-state, all-eastern, even high school all-American.
Under the circumstances, it wasnít surprising that traffic into Elmira from other areas picked up considerably in the spring of 1958. Representatives from more than 30 colleges came calling on Ernie. They rapped on the front door, introduced themselves, extolled the virtues of such widely scattered schools as West Point, Penn State, Annapolis, Ohio State, Pittsburgh, Michigan State, Southern California and Notre Dame.
Ernie listened carefully without committing himself for several weeks. At the age of 18 he didnít rattle easily. No matter how tempting some of those scholarship offers sounded. Ernie kept his eye fixed on a thoughtful goal.
"What I wanted was a good college where I could get myself a sound education as well as a varsity sweater," he told me that day in Elmira. "Whether I play professional football eventually or not, itís a relatively short career--four, five, maybe six productive years. I want something more than that."
After talking things over with his family, some friends and a few high school teachers, Ernie decided to enroll at Syracuse. For one thing, he felt that Syracuse would give him the sort of education he wanted. For another, it was close enough for occasional weekend trips back home to visit his parents.
While too many celebrated players at various schools are addicted to music appreciation, physical education, basket-weaving and other snap classes, Ernie Davis is a serious student. He carries a demanding 15-hour course in economics and finance, and he still scores a B average in his studies.
The young halfback wouldnít tell me so himself, of course, but his enrollment at Syracuse came as cheery news to the varsity coaching staff. Schwartzwalder and his assistants had followed Ernieís schoolboy career with a lively interest. They knew he couldnít miss.
Now that heís playing his second year of varsity ball itís obvious that Ernie Davis didnít miss. After leading the Orange freshmen through an unbeaten season, he moved up to the varsity last year and promptly won a starting job on college footballís ranking team. With the swift sophomore hammering off tackle or whirling around the ends, Syracuse swept its ten game schedule without a loss and went on to win the Cotton Bowl.
Even a fleeting look at the 1959 season totals shows how much Ernie contributed to the awesome Syracuse team. The top ground-gainer with 686 yards, he averaged seven yards per carry and scored ten touchdowns-including scoring blasts of 25, 25, 40, 56 and 57 yards during the regular season. Whatís more, he caught 11 passes for another 94 yards.
Impressive as those figures might seem, they donít impress Ernie Davis. Heís familiar with them, and not ashamed of them either, but Ernie seems to lose sight of his past triumphs in a nagging emphasis on how much better he could have been. He still talks about a key block he missed in the Pittsburgh game.
"I suppose my greatest weakness is playing defense," the halfback said. "In high school they donít neglect defensive ball. They just donít have the time to develop it properly. But at Syracuse itís a deadly serious business.
If defensive play is actually his major weakness right now, it probably won't be for long--not the way Ernie is working on it. He knows it takes more than a constant awareness of the fluctuating game situation: the score, time remaining, position, the down, yards to go. It takes other skills too.
"On pass plays I always try to follow the eyes of the quarterback," he told me. "Often his eyes reveal the direction he'll be throwing. And I don't let a receiver get to the outside of me either. If I turn him inside, our secondary can gang up on him."
Another thing Ernie never mastered until he reached Syracuse was a convincing fake. In the living room he leaned into an effective fake, body bent from the waist, elbow raised, fingers spread, head lowered.
For Ernie and the Syracuse national champs, such perfection makes a difference. In the Penn State game last season, for example, Ernie's masterful fake made a difference of exactly six points, in what became a
STALLED JUST short of the goal line Syracuse ran a 42-power play. Ernie blasted past quarterback Dave Sarett, faked taking a handoff, hit the number two linemen and the linebacker all hit him. With Penn State converging on Davis, quarterback Sarette, had no trouble drifting back and throwing a touchdown pass to Art Baker.
Yet for all the many differences between high school and college football, one constant remains for Ernie Davis. Even now that he's a top star, he still feels the same fluttery old pre-game pressures before the opening kickoff. They may vary some depending on the importance of the game being played, but they're always there.
"One way or another almost everyone feels the pressures," he said. "In my own case I get a painful tightness down in my stomach and I don't want to talk with anyone."
As Ernie described them, those pressures begin to mount while he's getting his ankles taped down in the locker room. They keep growing after Syracuse takes the field for the regular pre-game warm-up drills--duck walks, leg lifts, jumping jacks--and he runs back practice punts.
When the teams line up for the kickoff Ernie occasionally wonders if the fluttery knot in his stomach will ever subside. But then the ball comes tumbling through the autumn afternoon, and the first leathery jolts of padded bodies whacking one another sound in the air.
"The kickoff comes as a sense of enormous relief for me." Ernie said, smiling at the memory. "All of a sudden I feel my whole body loosen and relax. Then I'm myself again."
Probably the worst case of jitters Ernie ever suffered came just before the Cotton Bowl game in Dallas last New Year's Day. Out of practice five days with a pulled hamstring muscle, Ernie wasn't even certain he'd get into the game. But despite the leg and the fact he hadn't gone through warm-ups, he had a rubdown and lined up for the opening kickoff.
On the first series of downs Syracuse lined up for a pitchout pass. Ernie flanked out far to the left, hunkered down, and leaned his body a little as Dave Sarette started to call the signals.
On a two-count he went tailing straight down the field using tremendous leg drive. ten, fifteen, twenty yards. A Texas halfback picked him up and stuck close, but Ernie bolted to the inside and got a vital lead. He took the pass from Ger Schwedes without even stretching for it.
After socking the ball away, Ernie turned on the speed and blurred right into the promised land. an 87 -yard touchdown play, so abrupt many spectators hadn't yet gotten a good grip on their seats. Almost everyone agreed that it was the prettiest play of the game.
Typically, Ernie Davis isn't so sure of that himself. He concedes that it fooled Texas all right, and that six big points went up on the scoreboard. But as he reconstructed the play for me, Ernie wondered if he couldn't have hustled downfield faster, or shaken the defensive halfback a step or two sooner.
NOW THAT Ernie is a veteran with a solid season of varsity play behind him, there's no telling how far he will go. Coaches and sportswriters expect him to win All-American honors this year--and maybe the Heisman Trophy and college football's scoring championship besides.
But whether his runaway speed and bruising power make Ernie the number one ball-carrier of 1960 or merely one of the best, the big fellow won't change in one vital way. He still won't be completely satisfied with is play. Along with all his natural skills, that element explains the spectacular play of the big Syracuse star.
Reprinted courtesy of Boys Life : "Davis of Syracuse" by Deindorfer, Robert G, October, 1960,
Copyright 1960, Boy Scouts of America, Irving, Texas All Rights Reserved.
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