With movie set to open, local resident recalls football star and friend Ernie Davis

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 2, 2009

By Steve Huffman
When Jack Bilson heard they were making a movie about Ernie Davis, his high school buddy, he said only one thing.
“I said they better get somebody nice to play him because he was a nice human being,” Bilson said.
Bilson and Davis were classmates at Elmira Free Academy in Elmira, N.Y. They graduated from the high school in 1958.
Following graduation, Bilson joined the Navy. Davis went to Syracuse University, where he starred as a running back on the school’s football team.
In 1961, Davis became the first black to win the Heisman Trophy, the honor bestowed upon the best college football player in the nation.
A movie of Davis’ short life (he died in 1963 of leukemia at the age of 23), titled “The Express,” is scheduled for an Oct. 10 release.
Rob Brown, of “Finding Forrester” fame, is playing Davis. Syracuse coach Ben Schwartzwalder is played by Dennis Quaid.
Bilson said Davis could have played just about any sport he chose.
“He could have made it in the NBA,” Bilson said. “He could have played major league baseball if he’d wanted. He chose football because he liked the sport.”
Bilson was Davis’ teammate on a number of teams, though he readily admits, “I was strictly second string.”
Still, that didn’t keep Davis from offering Bilson advice. The two were good friends, Bilson said.
“He’d say, ‘Jack, hold the ball this way,’ ” Bilson recalled. “He’d say, ‘Jack, work on your shot more.’ ”
He said Davis also offered him advice on one of the most basic of playground games.
“He’d say, ‘Jack, if you’re going to play H-O-R-S-E, you’ve got to learn to shoot free throws,’ ” Bilson said.
He said Davis was an outstanding high school athlete and was recruited by a number of colleges. Bilson said he remembers the day that Jim Brown ó who played for Syracuse at the time and who went on to become arguably the greatest professional football player of all time as a fullback for the Cleveland Browns ó came to the locker room of Elmira Free Academy.
He was helping Syracuse recruit Davis, but he spoke to just about everyone in the locker room, Bilson recalled.
“Jim Brown paid me more respect than any 16- or 17-year-old kid deserved,” Bilson said.
At Syracuse, in addition to winning the Heisman Trophy, Davis was also named the most valuable player in the 1960 Cotton Bowl and 1961 Liberty Bowl games. He was the top pick in the 1962 NFL draft, being selected by the Washington Redskins.
But Davis was almost immediately traded to the Cleveland Browns, where team officials planned to pair him in the backfield with Brown. That never happened.
Davis was diagnosed with leukemia in the summer of 1962 and died in May 1963. He never played a game of professional football.
Bilson said that’s a shame for any number of reasons.
“He and Jim Brown would have set records that would have lasted a long time,” Bilson said.
He said the high school he and Davis attended was well ahead of its time ó fully integrated in an era when such was all but unheard of.
Bilson said Elmira was a town of 26,000 and included two high schools.
“For a black man and a white man to say ‘Hi’ to one another in Elmira was nothing unheard of,” Bilson said.
Davis was known as “The Elmira Express,” with the title of the movie about his life derived from that nickname.
Davis was raised largely in Pittsburgh, then moved to Elmira when his mother remarried. Bilson said Davis spent virtually all of his $16,000 NFL signing bonus on a house for his mother and stepfather.
Bilson said he was in the Navy when he learned of Davis’ death. He said thousands turned out for his funeral, the largest church in Elmira not coming close to being able to accommodate the throng.
After being discharged from the Navy, Bilson earned a degree from Cornell University. During his career, he worked in human resources for a number of companies, finally retiring from Unisys, a technology firm.
Bilson’s wife, Nancy, worked for National Starch, which is why the couple ended up in Salisbury. Nancy has retired, her husband said, and recently been appointed a trustee at Rowan-Cabarrus Community College.
Bilson said the loss of a professional athlete like Davis hurts his home community for many reasons. He said Davis being the type of individual he was would have given lots back to Elmira, just as Bobby Jackson gives much back to Salisbury through his basketball camps for youth.
Bilson said his sister called him about a year ago to tell him that a movie about Davis was in the works.
“I said, ‘Thank God,’ ” Bilson recalled. “There’s no one in the world who’s more deserving.”