The number 44 has a lot of meaning in football at Syracuse University. It was worn by Jim Brown, Floyd Little and Ernie Davis. Davis was the first African American to win the Heisman Trophy. Cancer cut his life and dreams of playing in the NFL short. In our series, "Facing the Rising Sun: Profiles in Black History," Iris St. Meran explains how his legacy lives on at SU and beyond.

SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- Many people know Floyd Little as a three time All-American at Syracuse University, and a hall of fame running back for the Denver Broncos. What many people don't know is he only considered attending SU because of one person: Ernie Davis. Little said, "When he passed away I made the decision to go to Syracuse so I could do what he didn't have an opportunity to do."

At 23, Ernie Davis was on the fast track to success. He had a deal with Pepsi and was set to play for the Browns. But all of that ended before he could even get started. Davis would die of Leukemia.

"He was my first hero," Little said. He also wore the number 44.

"Every time I played I knew who I was representing not only Syracuse University, but Ernie Davis and Jim Brown," Little recalled. Ernie Davis was everything a school could want in a student athlete. "He was a man of character, integrity and what else could you ask for?"

He excelled in the classroom and on the field. And according to many stories on his life, he caught the eye of more than 30 colleges and universities around the country, but the Elmira Native chose Syracuse University.

"When you have a person, like Ernie, who comes from the State of New York and then he stays home and competes at a wonderful institution like Syracuse that means a lot," said Herman Frazier, Senior Deputy Director of Athletics at Syracuse University.

Davis was recruited by his hero Jim Brown, one of the football team's first African American players. That helped Davis make this big decision. Not only did Davis have the pressure of being a student-athlete, but he had to do so as a black man in a segregated world. Davis persevered, and his athletic prowess earned him the Heisman Trophy.

"African-American athletes were competing in the sport of football at colleges, way back in the 1800s,” Frazier explained,” To have Ernie to then come in the 60s and win the Heisman Trophy and be the first African American to do that is just unparalleled success."

Davis caught the attention of many people including President Kennedy, who sent him a letter saying he wanted to meet and congratulate him. And he did. While many still wonder what Davis could have become, there's a lot to take from what he was able to accomplish in such a short time. His hometown of Elmira honors that. There is a school named after him now, the Ernie Davis Academy.

"We feel kind of lucky that we have such a great namesake that's come from here. We talk to kids all the time about the importance of not only was he a great athlete, but more importantly he was a good person," said Michael Lanning, Beecher Elementary School Principal.

There's even a highly competitive college scholarship in Davis name. One student vying for it even created a mobile museum to teach others about Davis. The reminders don't end there.  The statue that stands outside of Ernie Davis Academy It serves as a tribute but also an important reminder.

"He's a bright spot,” Lanning said, “I think he's an inspiration that we still hold on to for our children and our adults in this area to say you can be great and you can come from Elmira and be great."

In 2008, the movie, 'The Express' came out, profiling Davis whose nickname was 'The Elmira Express."

Statues of Davis, Brown and Little are also at Syracuse University's Plaza 44, commemorating the number the running backs wore while playing football.