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In 1960, an undefeated (11-0) Syracuse football team throughly whipped Texas, 23-14, in the Cotton Bowl to win the 1959 college national championship. The Syracuse team featured at least one genuine star: eventual Heisman winner Ernie Davis, the first African American to win the trophy, who would score twice in the Cotton Bowl and was voted the game’s MVP. Both teams, it turns out, were as tough as any that have ever played for the national title. As LIFE magazine noted in its Jan. 11, 1060, issue, in an article titled “A Brawling Battle of the Hard-Noses”:
But LIFE also reported that “as the game moved back and forth on the field and the normal tensions of the players were increased by the body-crunching fury of the play, an ugly undercurrent of racial bitterness began to spread — with shocking results.”
Much of this back-and-forth was dramatized in The Express, the largely fanciful 2008 film about Ernie Davis’ life. (Davis died of acute monocytic leukemia in 1963, at just 23 years old, before getting a chance to play in the NFL). Both Syracuse and Texas players have noted that quite a bit in the film was pure fiction, and many Texas players have stated in the years since that there was little racial animus on display during that long-ago Cotton Bowl.
A number of Syracuse players, meanwhile, respectfully disagree with their Longhorn counterparts’ version of the game — even as Brown himself long-argued that many of the racially charged scenarios depicted in The Express were embellished, or even wholly made up.