Looking back through the lens of history, one could say that the Cleveland Browns were blessed in their early years.
After all, how many other NFL clubs can boast that they only had one losing season in two decades?
From 1946-1966, the only season Cleveland didn’t have a winning record was a 5-7 finish in 1956.
Added to that accomplishment are 14 playoff appearances during the same time period.
In other words, nothing really fazed the franchise.
They drafted well, played well, and were coached by some of the best minds in the game.
During those early years, the Browns were the definition of success.
Very little went wrong for Cleveland and it wasn’t often that the team was in the press for something awry.
That changed in the early months of 1963.
From January through June of that year, three Browns players all tragically died, two of whom had yet to suit up for the organization.
This is the story of how Tom Bloom, Ernie Davis, and Don Fleming became a sad footnote in team history.
Tom Bloom first made a name for himself in his home state of West Virginia.
At Weir High School in Weirton, West Virginia, Bloom was a three-sport athlete.
During his time at Weir, Bloom garnered 11 varsity letters in football, baseball, and basketball.
As a junior and senior, Bloom helped lead the Red Riders football team to a 20-1 combined record.
This included an 11-0 record and state championship as a junior.
Bloom left little doubt that he had serious wheels as a kick returner, running back, and defensive back.
In his senior season, he had a 95-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in one game and 217 rushing yards (including a 96-yard rushing touchdown) in another.
That season, he led Weir in rushing yards with 943.
His career totals for the Weir football team are 1,869 rushing yards, 25 touchdowns for 151 total points.
Bloom was named First-team All-State and First-team All-OVAC (Ohio Valley Athletic Conference) for his performances on the field.
As a baseball outfielder, Bloom was named as an all-tournament selection.
He also led the program to a state title against East Bank High School, a top baseball school at the time.
Due to his undeniable athletic prowess, Bloom was given an opportunity to play football for Purdue University in Indiana.
As a Boilermaker, Bloom continued the success he began in high school.
Once again, he was called on to play both sides of the ball as a defensive back and running back.
He also returned kicks for Purdue.
Seeing time as a receiver as well, Bloom was second on the team in various statistical categories for rushing and receiving as a junior.
As a senior, he led the Boilermakers in receiving with 13 catches for 217 yards and two scores.
Both scores came in a 17-6 win over Michigan State during his 1962 senior season.
During his time at Purdue, Bloom was a varsity letterman for three years.
In the 1962 NFL Draft (the draft was held in December during this time period) the Browns selected Bloom in the 6th Round with the 74th overall pick.
Bloom gave every indication that he would sign with Cleveland and was looking forward to meeting his new teammates.
Unfortunately, on January 18, 1963, Bloom was involved in a car accident on an icy stretch of Interstate 70 in Western Ohio.
He was killed during the crash and never had the opportunity to play a down for his new team.
As a youth, Davis experienced frequent upheaval and difficulty.
After living his formative years with his maternal grandparents, Davis re-settled with his mother and stepfather when he was 12.
He also had to work to overcome a severe stuttering problem.
However, he never let these setbacks get him down and used the difficult times to work hard and achieve success.
As an athlete at Elmira Free Academy in Elmira, New York, Davis was a standout athlete in football, baseball, and basketball.
The new Ernie Davis mural down here in Elmira, NY. Erine’s hometown. 🍊 @CuseFootball @Cuse pic.twitter.com/aGUuR0eoQj
— Brandon (@Go0range44) June 16, 2018
While at Emira, Davis earned All-American honors in both basketball and football.
In fact, his hardwood skills led to the school winning 52 straight games at one point.
Football was Davis’ first love, however.
He played so well that numerous colleges were interested in his services by the time he was a senior.
And, although he was gaining national attention, his high school coaches praised Davis for his level-headedness.
“Ernie was the same kid at the end he was at the start,” said Jim Flynn, his high school basketball coach.
Even though he had his choice of colleges, Davis didn’t waste much time in selecting Syracuse University in New York.
He chose Syracuse because of his affinity for Jim Brown, an alum of the school and a fellow running back.
“I wanted to play in the big time,” Davis said after he left Syracuse, “and a lot of people, including Jim Brown, persuaded me that I’d have better opportunities there.”
After arriving at Syracuse, Davis initially only displayed his skills during practice as the school had a rule where freshmen could not play in games.
However, during his sophomore season, he gained national attention immediately.
During the 1959 season, Davis rushed for 686 yards on 98 carries and scored 10 touchdowns.
His ability on the field led to the nickname, “The Elmira Express.”
Syracuse dominated the ‘59 season and faced The University of Texas in the Cotton Bowl for the national championship.
With Davis leading the way with two scores, the Orangemen defeated the Longhorns 23-14 for the title.
For his troubles, Davis was named the MVP of the game and later received his first of three All-American selections.
During his junior year, Davis continued to dominate the competition.
In the 1960 season, he ran for over 100 yards in six of the nine games Syracuse played.
He also averaged an astounding 7.8 yards per carry on his way to 877 total yards, good for third-best in the country.
Since the Orangemen finished the season 7-2, the program was not eligible for a bowl game.
The 1961 season was Davis’ shining moment.
Averaging 5.5 yards per carry, he rushed for 823 yards and 15 touchdowns.
Syracuse faced off against the Miami Hurricanes in the Liberty Bowl that year.
After leading the Orangemen with 140 rushing yards and a score, Davis was again named a bowl MVP after Syracuse’s 15-14 win.
Davis’ three-year totals of 2,386 yards and 220 total points broke Brown’s school records.
He was an All-American three times during his college career.
And, in a surprising decision because of the racial issues during that time, Davis became the first African-American to be awarded the Heisman Trophy.
On this day in 1961 Ernie Davis made history as the first African American to win the #Heisman
Season Rushing Stats:
150 carries ✅
823 yards ✅
12 TDs ✅#OITNF 🍊💨 pic.twitter.com/5kK1hUaV3C
— Syracuse Football (@CuseFootball) December 6, 2017
“Winning the Heisman Trophy is something you just dream about,” Davis said. “You never think it could happen to you.”
Only a short time later, another ‘first’ occurred for Davis.
With the first pick of the 1961 draft, Davis was selected by the Washington Redskins.
His selection marked the first time in the draft’s history that an African-American was drafted first overall.
Davis did not stay a Redskin for long as Washington’s owner, George Preston Marshall, was an acknowledged racist.
Upon learning that he had been selected by Washington, Davis refused to sign or play for the team.
Seeing an opportunity, Cleveland coach Paul Brown traded for Davis.
For a short while, the move looked like a boon for the Browns.
Pairing Davis with his hero, Jim Brown, would provide a potent one-two punch for the team.
Unfortunately, that pairing never happened.
Never saw these before. Pretty cool. Jim Brown and Ernie Davis’ game-by-game rushing stats at #Syracuse. Can you imagine them in the same #Browns backfield? Maybe the biggest Might Have Been in #NFL history. pic.twitter.com/kuupu5uioB
— Dan Daly (@dandalyonsports) June 18, 2020
While training during the following summer for the 1962 College All-Star game, Davis awoke one day with swelling in his neck.
Davis went for a medical examination and learned that he had leukemia.
After undergoing treatment for the next few months, the cancer went into remission.
Davis was essentially feeling good enough to suit up for Cleveland, but Brown held him out of action, not wanting to risk Davis’ health.
The following spring, Davis again found swelling in his neck and was hospitalized.
Not long after entering the hospital, he passed away in his sleep on May 18, 1963.
Although he never played a down of professional football, Davis is remembered for his contributions to the game and society as a whole.
Don Fleming was destined to be a Brown when he was born in Bellaire, Ohio in 1937.
While attending Shadyside High School in Shadyside, Ohio, Fleming was a football marvel.
He played so well in high school that The University of Florida offered him an opportunity to play at the college level.
From 1956-1958, Fleming was an outstanding receiver for the Gators.
During his senior year of 1958, Fleming was named a team captain.
That same year, he was selected as a First-team All-SEC athlete.
Fleming’s college coach, Bob Woodruff, called him the Gators’ best receiver of the decade.
After the ‘58 season, the Chicago Cardinals drafted Fleming.
However, he chose instead to stay at Florida and use his remaining NCAA eligibility to play baseball.
From 1958-1960, he played for the Gators’ baseball team, became team captain, and led the program in home runs and stolen bases.
With his college eligibility expired, Fleming looked hard at the prospect of playing for the Cardinals.
Chicago (who still held Fleming’s rights) was not very competitive at the time.
Wanting to play closer to his hometown of Shadyside, Fleming contacted his former Gators teammate Bernie Parrish, who was a member of the Browns.
Parrish approached coach Paul Brown on Fleming’s behalf and suggested the coach trade for Fleming.
Brown was convinced by Parrish’s explanation for why Fleming should be a part of the team.
Not long after, the Browns and the Cardinals worked out a trade agreement and Fleming was on his way back to Ohio.
Right from the start Fleming proved his worth to Cleveland.
In his rookie 1960 season, he had five interceptions after making the switch to defense.
In 1961, he made three picks and then added two more INTs in 1962.
After only three years, Fleming had 10 interceptions, four fumble recoveries and had been selected as a member of The Sporting News All-NFL team in 1962.
#June4 1963 Don Fleming college and pro football player who was a defensive back in the #NFL for three seasons has his football career cut short by his accidental death He played college #football for the University of Florida #Gators and professionally for the Cleveland #Browns pic.twitter.com/L8l8pSCNAy
— 1960s Sports (@1960sSports) June 4, 2019
After the ‘62 season, Fleming and his family went to their off-season home in Winter Park, Florida.
During his time in college, Fleming had majored in building construction.
In the offseasons, he would return to central Florida to work for a construction company.
Essentially, he was preparing for his post-football career and staying in shape while doing what he loved.
On June 4, 1963, Fleming and a co-worker were operating a crane at a construction site.
While maneuvering the crane, part of the device brushed against 12,000-volt high-tension electrical wires.
Fleming and his co-worker were immediately electrocuted and were unable to be revived.
Tragically, Fleming died the same day the Browns announced that he had signed his contract for the upcoming 1963 season.
His death came only 17 days after Davis had passed away from complications due to leukemia.
To honor Davis and Fleming, the Browns retired both of their playing numbers, 45 (Davis) and 46 (Fleming).
The deaths of Bloom, Davis, and Fleming rocked the Cleveland area and the Browns especially.
Both the organization, as well as Browns fans, were looking forward to watching Davis and Brown run unfettered through opponents.
Bloom and Fleming would have been defensive backfield mates.
However, it wasn’t meant to be and the team was left to soldier on.
To their credit, the Browns overcame adversity quickly and posted a 10-4 record in 1963.
One year later, they went 11-3 and won their fourth NFL Championship by beating the heavily favored Baltimore Colts 27-0.
Even though they have long passed, Bloom, Davis, and Fleming are still remembered.
This August, Bloom will be posthumously inducted into the Ohio Valley Athletic Conference Hall of Fame.
In Shadyside, Ohio, the football field at Shadyside High School is named Fleming Field in Fleming’s honor.
#TBT Cleveland @Browns practice at Don Fleming Field before 1965 NFL Championship Game. https://t.co/vulL2kAKte pic.twitter.com/R3Fq9tkfzT
— Cleveland Public Library (@Cleveland_PL) November 17, 2016
And, in 2008, the movie The Express:The Ernie Davis Story arrived in theatres, 45 years after Davis’ death.
Been a big fan of @BrocoliRobBrown since Finding Forrester but when my fellow Harlem #NYC native played Ernie Davis in my alma mater’s greatest movie. Here walking w/ the great #44 Floyd Little. Message in “The Express” is still relevant today dealing w/ racism & discrimination pic.twitter.com/miaNSHt5EI
— World Express (@worldexpress) June 8, 2020
These honors are confirmation that, though they are gone, Bloom, Davis, and Fleming will never be forgotten.
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