A Blood Disorder

We Browns fans have been through a lot over the last twenty-five years. Playoff disappointments and franchise moves have helped to make us a tough and resilient bunch. But what we can only barely sense what Browns fans were going through when they opened their newspapers 41 years ago today...

It was 41 years ago this morning that Browns fans skipped to the sports pages of their  Plain Dealer and the headline stopped them dead in their tracks.

August 1, 1962:  "Ernie Davis Ailing, Out of Action."  An accompanying picture showed the former Syracuse running back in a hospital bed in Evanston, Illinois.  A photographer  in the shot, preparing to take a photo, wore a surgeons mask.

The scene played out in thousands of Cleveland homes:  the man read the article aloud at the breakfast table, only to have a child interrupt-- "Daddy, what's a blood disorder?" 

"I don't know… exactly," said the father, looking at his wife with uncertainty and a little fear.   

Most didn't know what to make of the story.  They knew the Browns already opened training camp at Hiram College and were anxiously awaiting Davis and their other top pick, Gary Collins, to show up after the College All-Star game.  Few knew the truth, and it wasn't forthcoming for weeks.  But it would slowly reveal itself as one of the great tragedies in sport.

Older Browns fans know the story of Ernie Davis.  For younger ones, Davis was the most celebrated running back to come out of college since the man whose records he broke at Syracuse—Jim Brown.  The Browns did not draft Davis, but pulled off a huge trade with the Washington Redskins, sending them halfback Bobby Mitchell and a high draft pick in exchange for Davis' draft rights. 

Davis had his number 45 retired by the Brown, a move often preceding a player's induction into the Hall of Fame.  But Davis never played a down for the Browns.

As he prepared for the College All-Star game (a summer tradition at Chicago's Soldier Field pitting all-stars against the previous year's NFL champs), Ernie Davis felt sluggish in workouts.  He then woke up three mornings before the game, his face painfully swollen.  He ultimately had to watch the All-Star game from that hospital bed in the Plain Dealer picture.   Doctors could only give the vague diagnosis of  "a blood disorder."

It was eventually revealed to be leukemia.  Ernie Davis, by all accounts a humble mature kid, the kind of guy you wanted your daughter to marry, held on with courage and composure.  He was even encouraged by a remission through the fall and talked of "next year."  But his condition relapsed and he died the following spring.

Dreams of the megastar backfield of Jim Brown and Ernie Davis were dashed. 

The Browns went on to their second worst year in franchise history:  7-6-1.  Paul Brown was fired by a rookie team owner, the New York ad executive Art Modell.

We have had 40 years and various accounts of the Ernie Davis tragedy, but having been much too young to know what was going on, I became curious as to how this story played out at the time.  These days Browns fans have so much information at their fingertips that little can escape them for very long.  And scooping the competition in today's information age is brutal. But back then, football news came strictly from newspapers.  TV sports merely rehashed their headlines. And often reporters were willing to keep news under their hats, like players off field partying.

It's fascinating to see in hindsight how stories were treated, or the opinions expressed at the time that could be either on or way, way off the mark. A favorite of mine was in doing some research and stumbling upon a letter to the editor in the Akron Beacon Journal around 1934.  The writer was touting a new grassroots leader, a "man of the people" emerging in Italian politics.  Watch this guy, the writer boasted, Benito Mussolini is going to get Italy back on its feet!

Ironically my father's World War II scrapbook includes a few photos of a dead Mussolini lying in an open coffin for public inspection, much like the Hussein brothers last week. 

I should place that letter to the editor next to those pictures.  The guy who wrote it could never have lived it down. 

But who knew in 1934?  Who knew in 1962?

So the morning before the opening of training camp, I stopped in at the Cleveland Public Library for some research.  I wanted to see how the papers covered our acquisition of Davis, and how the story broke on his illness.

Back in 1961, the NFL draft was held in early December, and the NFL was in competition with the upstart AFL to sign players.  Drafting a player was only half the battle-- a team then had to outbid its counterpart in the other league. The Buffalo Bills had already drafted Davis.  And who was there to see that college football's best running back should play in the NFL? 

12/4/61-  Plain Dealer-

All of the NFL owners are anxious to get Davis, who has broken many of Jim Brown's records at Syracuse and is the first Negro to win the Heisman Trophy.

Their best hope of landing the versatile halfback may be through Jim Brown. 

The Cleveland fullback revealed on the trip here to Dallas that he will be talking to Ernie and the young man's lawyer in Elmira, NY.

It was big Jim who helped land Ernie for his alma mater and it is believed that Davis will listen thoughtfully to Jim's advice.

"I think that Ernie would rather play in the National League, all other things being about equal," explained Brown.

That day, the Browns drafted Maryland receiver Gary Collins.  The other picks were forgettable, save for one basketball player who dreamed of giving football a shot.  Though he never worked out as a receiver, the prospect went back to the NBA team that drafted him.  The team was the Boston Celtics.  The player was John Havlicek. .

But the only hint of a big trade came from the Plain Dealer's Chuck Heaton:


Ernie Davis, selected by Washington as the first player in the National Football League draft yesterday, may wind up with the Cleveland Browns.

Negotiations already are underway that would send Bobby Mitchell to the Redskins and see the University of Syracuse All-American as the running mate of Jim Brown.

Paul Brown admitted such a possibility but vehemently denied a rumor sweeping the meeting at the Sheraton Chicago Hotel that Gary Collins, Cleveland's first draft choice from Maryland also would be included. 

"We drafted Collins because we want a good pass receiver and rated him as the top man," said the coach, "We have no intention of trading him."

Bill Scholl of the Cleveland Press added this on the same day:

Vince Lombardi, coach of the western division champion Green Bay Packers, strode up to Paul Brown with this comment:

"If the rumor I hear is true, you've made the greatest deal of the year—no, of the century... If it's true, I hope I don't have to play you for another 15 years… He's worth anything he costs you." 

As to why Paul Brown would want to add the greatest college runner to play alongside the greatest pro runner, columnist Frank Gibbons of the Press figured he wanted to duplicate the Packers big running back tandem:  Jim Taylor and Paul Hornung:

"We just might not have enough big men," was one observation [Paul] Brown had before the season began… {Bobby] Mitchell has few peers in the league in his specialties.  He is an exciting runner and fine pass receiver.  He does not have the size to block out big men, however, and he doew not have the drive to get a few yards when there just isn't an opening.  He probably should be a flanker a la Lennie Moore.

Gibbons nailed it, and apparently the Redskins thought the same thing.  Bobby Mitchell became the first African-American on the Redskins, which in turn was the last team in the NFL to integrate.  Mitchell was converted into a wide receiver and went on to a Hall of Fame career. 

Perhaps the Browns learned their lesson when two years later, they drafted and then immediately converted an Ohio State running back into a flanker.   

Paul Warfield worked out just fine.

In the December 7th edition of the Plain Dealer, highlighting several stories on the 20th anniversary of  Pearl Harbor, there was also a short story on someone who tried to pump Davis for information.

 Even President Kennedy couldn't find out yesterday what are the pro football intentions of Syracuse's Ernie Davis, the nation's No. 1 college player—but he tried.

"What are your future plans, Ernie?" the President asked as he shook hands with the strapping 210 pound halfback in the west foyer of the grand ball room of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel. 

"I play in the Liberty Bowl in Philadelphia Dec. 16, sir." Ernie replied.  "After that, I haven't made up my mind."

Syracuse rallied to defeat Miami in the Liberty Bowl, 15-14.  Ernie Davis had 30 carries for 140 yards.  Just another day at the office.

Ultimately the trigger was pulled on the Browns-Redskins trade, though I didn't see the actual announcement covered in the Plain Dealer.  It reported on December 15 that rights to negotiate with Davis were obtained from the Redskins "several weeks ago."  Perhaps the rumors on draft day were more than just rumors, but never reported as official (and nothing was reported on the fact that Paul Brown made the decision on his own without consulting Modell, one of the factors that eventually led to PB's dismissal).

In that article, Modell expressed confidence in signing Davis:  "We certainly won't spare any expense or effort to get him."  He also announced the signing of Gary Collins, over seven months before the start of training camp!

Next to this article, a Gordon Cobbledick column concerned a groundswell of fans urging that the Browns fire coach Paul Brown.  Cobbledick dismissed it.  It seemed tantamount to heresy at the time, but a little more than a year later, the legendary coach was shown the door.

Davis was eventually signed to a 3-year deal for $80,000.  Though Art Modell boasted he wouldn't spare any expense, Davis signed with the Browns despite Buffalo offering more cash.

Fast forward to the eve of Browns training camp.  In a column titled "Much of Browns' Success Will Depend on Showing of Ninowski and Davis," the Plain Dealer's Gordon Cobbledick quotes a sports magazine preview:


The new Brown-Davis "big back attack" looks formidable.  But quarterback is dubious with [Milt] Plum gone and linebacking is shaky."

Next to Cobbledick's column is news that Bob Feller and Jackie Robinson are inducted into baseball's Hall of Fame.

Chuck Heaton reported on the lack of bodies at training camp.


Three veterans—Charles Ferguson, Ross Fichtner and Jim Houston—are in service [note:  interesting how serving in the armed forces is no longer an impediment for pro athletes].  The College All-Stars have claimed five players—Ernie Davis, Gary Collins, Frank Parker, Mike Lucci and Charley Hinton.  Bill Glass, defensive end obtained from Detroit, was missing, but called from St. Louis and hopes to make this afternoon's practice.

And just in case you thought it only came in vogue in the last ten years, Gordon Cobbledick had a column touting the essential element for today's players in training camp to make the squad… speed. 

But at this point, no one was reporting that Otto Graham, coach of the college All-Stars, was disappointed at just how sluggish Ernie Davis looked in drills.  Everybody figured that Davis was getting over dental surgery the week before.  And then it hit the fan.


The Browns practiced as usual yesterday at this Hiram College training camp, but thoughts of Paul Brown and his coaches were entered some 375 miles away in Evanston, Ill., where Ernie Davis is hospitalized with a mysterious ailment and out of Friday's College All-Star game in Chicago.

First reports had the All-American halfback from Syracuse suffering from the mumps.  Then a later announcement said the ailment was of a different nature, possibly infectious mononucleosis, which is a disease of the blood rather common to college students.

That was also ruled out last night by Dr. Franklin Kaiser, the attending physician in Evanston.

"It isn't mononucleosis," said the doctor.  "I haven't come to any conclusion.  I won't know until further tests are made.

"I realize that people in Cleveland are anxious to know about Ernie, but I don't have any more information right now."

Asked if he thought the illness was anything that might affect Davis' career with the Browns, Dr. Kaiser said he couldn't answer the question.

Later in the article…

"Depending on what I learn today, Ernie may be moved to Mayo or Cleveland Clinic," the Browns president [Art Modell] said.  "It seems to be a blood disorder.  Our only thought is to get Ernie well."

"If he's out for any length of time, this could be a crusher," said Paul Brown.

If the August 1st article raised an alarm, the next day's headline in the Plain Dealer was, indeed, the crusher for Paul Brown:  "Browns' Davis Out for Season."

These facts were indicated last night after further tests were made at Evanston Hospital where the Heisman Award winner was reported to be suffering from a "blood disorder."

By Friday, August 3rd, Davis was transferred to Cleveland Marymount Hospital where further tests would "determine the nature of the blood disorder which has put him out of action for the 1962 season…" 

Paul Brown played damage control:

8/3/62-  Plain Dealer

"I'm not going to minimize the loss, but I'm not running up any white flag either," said Brown.  "I don't know just what Ernie would have done for us this year because of the late start.

"I've talked to the players this morning about the loss of Ernie for the season," he said.  "Most of these fellows never had met him or seen him play football.

"Any rookie has to prove himself with the pros.  And the fellows here have liked what they've seen of Tom Wilson so far."

Tom Wilson went on to rank fifth on the team in rushing with 141 yards that year, his only year.  Presumably Wilson went on to other endeavors.  If he's still with us, he should be facing retirement right about now. 

The Browns' first round pick in the next draft was a dud—Tom Hutchinson from Kentucky.  Their 12th round pick from Florida went to the AFL—Lindy Infante. 

In the sixth round, they selected another defensive back from Purdue, Tom Bloom. 

Just weeks after he was drafted, Tom Bloom was wiped out in a car crash.  It was four months to the day before Ernie Davis died, May 18, 1963. 

One bright spot in the Browns '62 season was the play of defensive back Don Fleming.  He earned all-pro honors from the Sporting News.  But such honors didn't kick in any $500k bonus.  Like most players, he still needed to hold down an off-season job. 

17 days after the passing of Ernie Davis, Fleming labored on a Florida construction site when he was electrocuted.  For the Browns and its fans, three deaths in six months.

Fleming and Bloom's deaths were immediate accidents.  But Ernie Davis was a story that slowly unfolded.  What people knew about his illness and when they knew it was nothing like today.  Then the rumors made the rounds in bars and barber shops.  Today we beat those rumors senseless in chat rooms before they're even made official, chat rooms that even the players and front office can read. 

How much information did reporters miss versus what they knew and kept under wraps?  When Browns safety Don Rogers died 17 years ago last June from cocaine poisoning, did any beat writers hear whispers about his drug use?  It seems today like competition and the crush for immediate information today compels sports reporters to spill as much as they know—and then some-- as soon as they know it.  And banter in public chat rooms can serve notice to a player that certain off field hobbies better be curtailed.

But back then, maybe fans were better then at reading between the lines.  Maybe they didn't have to be told that Davis had leukemia because they already saw the handwriting on the wall.  The emerging realization that such a great player would not play his first year-- then any year—then not live beyond 23—was tragedy for an earlier generation of Browns fans on a different scale than any Drive or Fumble. 

 And for many, that realization started with their morning paper 41 years ago this morning.

 Copyright 2003.  Questions?  Comments?  Post in the Fans Commentary forum, or write Aardvark at AakronAardvark@aol.com.

The OBR Top Stories