Rob Brown plays Syracuse running back Ernie Davis in “The Express.”
Just like USC is known for producing tailbacks and Penn State linebackers, Syracuse University was once a football factory for running backs.
The new Universal Pictures football movie “The Express” tells the story of one of those backs, Ernie Davis, the first black man to win the Heisman Trophy, who died of leukemia before playing a down in the NFL.
Davis was a tremendous talent, the second of five running backs to dominate Syracuse football in a 13-year period from 1954 to 1967 under coach Ben Schwartzwalder. He followed Jim Brown, who many consider the greatest running back ever. Jim Nance, Floyd Little and Larry Csonka completed the SU list.
Best of The Orange
Jim Brown (1954-56)
Ernie Davis (1959-61)
Jim Nance (1962-64)
Floyd Little (1964-66)
Larry Csonka (1965-67)
Davis was a sophomore running back when Syracuse won its only national football championship in 1959. The Orangemen were unbeaten that year and beat Texas in the Cotton Bowl.
Davis, right, is seventh all-time in rushing for Syracuse with 2,386 yards. In his junior year, he set a record of 7.8 yards per carry and was the third leading rusher in the country with 877 yards, having rushed for 100 yards in six of nine games.
The number-one pick in the 1962 NFL draft, Davis was the first black football player to be taken first overall. Selected by the Washington Redskins, his rights were then traded to the Cleveland Browns. He was also drafted by the Buffalo Bills of the American Football League.
Davis signed a three-year, $200,000 contract with the Browns in late December 1961, the most lucrative contract for an NFL rookie up to that time. However, the Browns’ dream of pairing Davis with Jim Brown in the backfield took a tragic turn when Davis was diagnosed with leukemia during preparations for the 1962 College All-Star Game.
Davis never played a game as a professional, with his only appearance at Cleveland Stadium coming during a 1962 pre-season game, in which he ran onto the field as a spotlight followed him. Following his death in 1963, the Browns retired his number 45 jersey.
Jim Brown entered Syracuse University in 1954, and was one of the greatest athletes in the school’s history. In addition to football, Brown ran track, played basketball and in his senior year was named a first-time All-America in lacrosse and tied for the national scoring lead
Brown scored 23 touchdowns in his career, and ranks eighth on the all-time Syracuse scoring list. In 1956, in a regular season finale 61-7 rout of Colgate, he scored 43 points on six touchdowns and seven extra points. Then in the Cotton Bowl, he rushed for 132 yards, scored three touchdowns and kicked three extra points. But a blocked extra point after Syracuse’s third touchdown was the difference as TCU won 28-27.
Brown led the NFL in rushing eight times in nine years, and established the single-season rushing record in 1963 with 1,863 yards. For his career, Brown rushed for 12,312 yards and averaged 5.2 yards per carry. The NFL’s leader when he retired before the 1966 season, Brown still ranks eighth all-time in rushing yardage and fifth in rushing touchdowns with 106. Brown won MVP honors in 1957, 58, 63 and 65 and led Cleveland to the NFL championships in 1964.
The next great Syracuse back was Floyd Little, whose 35 rushing touchdowns are still a Syracuse record.
In 1967 Floyd Little was the sixth overall selection of the first common NFL-AFL draft. He was the first ever first-round draft pick to sign with the AFL’s Denver Broncos.
Little led the NFL in rushing for the six-year period from 1968–73, including AFL rushing titles in 1970 and 1971. Little retired as the seventh leading rusher in NFL history with 6,323 yards rushing and 54 touchdowns, but is not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Number 44 Retired
Davis, Brown and Little all wore #44 for Syracuse. The number was retired in 2005. It is permanently displayed in the Carrier Dome, honoring the legends who have worn it for the Orange.
Jim Nance started for three years at Syracuse beginning in 1962, and led the Orange (then the Orangemen) in rushing in 1964, scoring in 10 straight games. In 1963 and 1965 Jim Nance was the NCAA heavyweight wrestling champion and received All-America honors.
A late-round draft choice of the Patriots in the 1965 AFL draft, Nance led the AFL in rushing in both 1966 and 1967, and was 1966 AFL Player of the Year.
In his three seasons at Syracuse, Larry Csonka rushed for a school record 2,934 yards, ran for 100 yards in 14 different games, and averaged 4.9 yards per carry. He was the first pick of the Miami Dolphins in the 1968 draft.
He eventually emerged as the offensive leader of the Dolphins, and a key component on the team that went undefeated in 1972 and appeared in three straight Super Bowls, winning in 1973 and 1974. Later Csonka played in the World Football League and with the New York Giants.
In 1978, Joe Morris, a 5’7″ running back, would enter Syracuse as a freshman and eventually break the all-time records set by the illustrious group before him. But that’s another story for another blog.