The Legend of 44
In all of college football no single number signifies the storied history of a school’s program as the number 44 as it does for Syracuse University,
The legend of No. 44 at SU began with the legendary Jim Brown. Interestingly, it was almost #33 – the number Jim Brown wanted. Brown, who still holds many athletic records in Nassau County, wore 33 in High Schools and like many players he wanted to continue wearing it in college. However, Syracuse University senior Vince Vergara already had 33. Brown asked for anything close with double digits, and 44 was available. So, began the Legend of 44.
44 permeates Syracuse University life.
- SU eventually changed its telephone exchange to reflect that number.
- SU’s zip code includes No. 44.
- Even the Hex code for the school’s official color includes 44 (#D44500).
- SU recently created Plaza 44, a tribute to Brown. Davis and Little with their statues located near the entrance to the Ensley Athletic Center, the school’s new $18 million indoor practice facility.
Since 1921, 25 players have worn number 44. Since Jim Brown first put on the jersey in his 1954 sophomore year (freshman were not eligible to play varsity in his day), 11 players have worn 44.
The three most famous 44’s were Jim Brown, arguably the best football player in history, Ernie Davis, the first African American to win the Heisman Trophy and Floyd Little, the greatest kick returner in SU history. All three are in the College Football Hall of Fame.
The number has been active from 1921 until it was retired in 1998.
In 2002, Sporting News named Jim Brown as the greatest professional football player ever. Many agree with that notion. Brown was also an exceptional athlete in basketball, track and especially lacrosse. He was the second leading scorer on the SU basketball team, and was a first-team All American in lacrosse.
In 118 career NFL games, Brown averaged 104.2 yards per game and 5.2 yards per carry. No NFL star has ever come close to those records.
“Brown, who played at SU from 1954-56 and led the team to a Cotton Bowl berth, went on to become the NFL’s all-time leading rusher and a member of the Pro and College Football Halls of Fame. He led the league in rushing eight times in his nine years. Many still point to him as the greatest running back of all time. Among Brown’s accomplishments at Syracuse was setting an NCAA single-game record of 43 points against Colgate in a 61-6 SU win.”
When it comes down to it, Brown said, “the sign of a great back is that the defense is scared to death of him. Every time they stop him, they feel relieved.” Brown, in saying that, capsulized his own career. He also mapped the path to greatness for the newest 44.
“Brown, who played at SU from 1954–56 and led the team to a Cotton Bowl berth, went on to become the NFL’s all-time leading rusher and a member of the Pro and College Football Halls of Fame. He led the league in rushing eight times in his nine years. Many still point to him as the greatest running back of all time.”
Ernie Davis followed in the footsteps of Jim Brown, one of his football heroes. Ernie’s life story is captured in the motion picture “The Express” based on the book titled Ernie Davis: The Elmira Express, by author Robert C. Gallagher.
Davis played for the Orange from 1959-61. He won the 1961 Heisman Trophy, becoming the first African-American to do so, and was a starter on SU’s 1959 national championship team. Davis also signed to play with the Cleveland Browns,. His dream of playing in the same backfield as Jim Brown never came to pass when Davis died of leukemia in 1963. He was later inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.
At Syracuse, he compiled 686 yards on 98 carries and 10 touchdowns as a sophomore, earning the nickname “The Elmira Express” and the first of three All-America selections. Playing with a pulled a hamstring, Davis scored two touchdowns as the Orangemen beat the University of Texas, 23-14 in the Cotton Bowl on New Year’s day 1960, cementing an undefeated campaign and the national championship.
Davis rang up 877 rushing yards on an outstanding 7.8 yards per carry during the 1960 season, and followed with another 823 rushing yards in 1961 to win the Heisman Trophy as the nation’s top player. Davis capped his college career with 140 rushing yards in an MVP performance at the 1961 Liberty Bowl, and finished with 2,386 total rushing yards on 6.6 yards per carry and 35 touchdowns, all school records.
A statue erected to honor Davis stands just outside the Carrier Dome. Today. in a solemn pre-game tradition, the Syracuse Orange players march past the statue single file, touching its shoes as they go in silent tribute.