Southern Tier Life: Legends and Legacies
Former Elmira Student Isabella Griffin Shares How She Got the Legendary Ernie Davis His Day
On January 3, 2023, Mayor Daniel Mandell and the City of Elmira proclaimed December 6, from this year forward, to be Ernie Davis Day, celebrating the date in 1961 that Davis became the first African American to win the Heisman Trophy. The momentous occasion was courtesy of the determined efforts of Isabella “Izzy” Griffin, who petitioned the City of Elmira to proclaim December 6, 2023, and every December 6 moving forward, Ernie Davis Day.
“I have such a background with Ernie Davis – my family loved him.” Izzy, who’s now a freshman at Davis’ alma mater, Syracuse University, explains. “My grandparents talked about him all the time. My uncle prided himself on how he was able to play catch with a football with him in a park.”
“It became personal for me because it was a huge part of my childhood. I spent a lot of time at my grandparents house and they would play “The Express” movie for me every week because I loved it,” she laughs.
Inspired by a social media post from a family friend who pointed out the significance of December 6, Izzy decided to take on the mission to have it forever be known as “Ernie Davis Day” in Elmira.
“I saw Randy Reid’s post on December 6th that said, ‘It should be Ernie Davis Day’, and I was kinda like, ‘It should be! Like, why isn’t it already?!’,” she said.
Social media post that inspired Isabella “Izzy” Griffin to get an official Ernie Davis Day established. Reprinted with permission from author.
“It was almost upsetting that there isn’t really much going on to educate kids in our area about him, considering how big of an impact he had on football and the nation, overall. It’s a really big deal to be the first African American football player to win the Heisman. That completely altered history.”
“Considering that he was from Elmira and Elmira doesn’t really do anything to commemorate him, except the statue that’s in front of what’s now E.D.A. – it was kind of odd to me,” she recalls.
Izzy, who was a senior at Notre Dame at the time, decided to run for the Ernie Davis Scholarship in effort to put a spotlight on this important and inspirational figure in American sports history.
“I planned on running for the Ernie Davis scholarship because I loved Ernie Davis so much. It wasn’t really about the money, it was just about spreading the word. I liked the idea of just doing a project to get his name out into the community.”
“Originally, I had this idea of … OK, I’m gonna sell these shirts and then donate the money to the Leukemia Foundation. But, then I thought, ‘That just doesn’t seem like enough to … keep his name flowing throughout the community. Then, I saw that post, and thought, ‘Wow, this could have an effect on the community for years and years to come forever. It’s not just one year or one day … it’s an enduring effect, which is something that is so amazing,” she said, enthusiastically.
“I knew that I would need the community’s help and that’s why I started the petition.”
Izzy started a Change.org petition to have December 6 declared “Ernie Davis Day” in Elmira. N.Y.
“I was sitting at my kitchen table and, I was like, ‘there’s no way that I can just go to the mayor and be like, Hey, I’m a 17-year-old that has this idea, let’s make it happen.’” Izzy explained, feeling as though she’d need to have back-up from the community.
“Why not have the community help me?” she asked. “That way, not only does that create buzz about it, but it also makes the community feel more involved in the decision, which I think is super important, and it doesn’t really happen in our government as much as it should. Even though we’re deemed a democracy, there’s not really a lot of representation of what citizens actually want. And I think that local government is so important to change that. I think you need to change it on a smaller scale before you do it on a bigger scale. I just think that getting everyone’s petitions made everyone feel like they were a part of the effort to make this official holiday,” she says.
Izzy is no stranger to community service. Growing up, she’s always wanted to make a difference and improve her hometown.
“I always, throughout high school and middle school, participated in volunteer activities and stuff like the soup kitchen. I started a “Hearts for the Homeless” box at my school for a drop off of clothing.” she explains. “It’s little things like that, that I was able to do. But I really wanted to do something that would bring a super-positive light onto Elmira.”
Getting the first African American Heisman Trophy winner a day of recognition and celebration in his hometown would be a great way to do that. So, Izzy got to work.
“I wrote the petition – I’m an English and Political Science major so I really took pride in writing the petition. I think it’s really important – just sharing the information in order for people to make the decision of whether or not they want to sign it,” she said. “I mean, I think it was a pretty easy decision for everyone.”
“After I posted it (to Change.org), I posted it on my Facebook, my Instagram and Snapchat … Kids my age, younger than me, parents of kids, my parents’ friends … everybody was sharing it everywhere!”
Izzy said that the signatures continued to pour in from those within the community as well as sports and history buffs outside the region.
“I actually went around knocking on doors with paper petitions, too. Altogether, I had over a thousand signatures.”
Izzy said that she ended up enjoying the interactive experience of going door-to-door to explain her goal and why she felt it was so important. She said that she thought adding a personal touch helped achieve her goal.
“It’s great to start the internet petition, but when you actually go and talk to people and propose your ideas, I think that that makes it a lot better. Especially for an older crowd, too. I think they really like when younger people take initiative and actually talk to you face-to-face rather than doing it behind a screen.”
“It definitely makes it more personal, too, when you’re able to really talk to someone and have them ask you questions about it.”
“I was able to answer questions … about my hopes for the project,” she says. “I think my main reason was just how grossly underplayed this profound piece of history is in our town. It just didn’t make any sense in my head.”
It didn’t take long for the online petition to receive 750 online supporters. Combined with even more signatures from Izzy’s efforts going door-to-door, she eventually gathered over 1,000 signatures of community support to declare December 6, from 2023 forward, as Ernie Davis Day. She presented the petition to Elmira Mayor Daniel Mandell who, enthusiastically, supported her efforts.
“I think it’s fantastic!,” Mayor Mandell says. “It’s a wonderful tribute to a great person from our community.”
(Pictured L. to R.) Izzy Griffin with the proclamation officially declaring December 6 as Ernie Davis Day, and posing with the Ernie Davis statue at Syracuse University, where she is currently a freshman. Photos provided by Isabella Griifin and family.
Her efforts have also been enthusiastically supported by the person who inspired Izzy, media executive Randy Reid.
“When I posted my thoughts about Ernie Davis Day it was just me spouting off,” Randy wrote via email. “I got a text from Izzy's dad asking if she could take on my idea. I said, ‘absolutely’. I just had the idea but Izzy followed through and now it’s here forever, and I'm very proud of her.”
Another family friend and supporter who encouraged her efforts is Chemung County City of Elmira District 1 Legislator Martin “Marty” Chalk.
“I admire young people like Izzy, for going out and, first of all, working on this project; and second, for getting it done.” Marty Chalk said. “I know Izzy and her family. She is a very special young lady, as is her family. I’m very proud of her for doing this.”
Marty, who’s also President of the Chemung County Sports Hall of Fame, continued.
“I think it’s long past due to have some sort of an official celebration for Ernie Davis. Every year when the Heisman Trophy winner is announced we display Ernie’s Heisman at the mall, but we’ve never officially had an Ernie Davis Day. So, good for Izzy for thinking of this and working so hard on the petition and getting this accomplished!”
As the first Ernie Davis Day approaches, Izzy, Marty, who’s also President of the Chemung County Sports Hall of Fame, and Mayor Mandell have been working with the Elmira City School District, Clemens Center and EOP to provide a free viewing of “The Express” movie, open to the public.
“Everyone talks so negatively about Elmira but there are so many beautiful things … ,” Izzy says. “I just really wanted to make a change in the community.”
CELEBRATING ERNIE DAVIS DAY
Below are some events taking place throughout the area to honor Ernie Davis. If there are events that are missing, please email firstname.lastname@example.org with basic details and organizer contact information by November 20.
December 6: The Express will be shown in Mandeville Hall at the Clemens Center, downtown Elmira. The movie starts at 9:30 a.m. and is open to the public. Items related to Ernie Davis' life, including his Heisman Trophy, will be on display. Free, however you must contact the Clemens Center to RSVP. Visit the link or call 607-735-2777 to RSVP and for event details.
December 9: Ernie Davis Heisman Trophy Day at Chemung County Sports Hall of Fame at the Arnot Mall, 330 Chambers Rd. in Horseheads, NY. Ernie Davis’ Heisman Trophy will be displayed and the announcement of the finalists of the Ernie Davis Athlete of the Year Award will take place at noon. This event coincides with the national award presentation of the Heisman Trophy.