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Syracuse, Jim Brown Retire No. 44

SYRACUSE, N.Y. (AP) _ Gifford Zimmerman was the first to wear it way back in 1921 and Rob Konrad was the last in 1998.

In between, the man many feel was the greatest running back in history, the first black Heisman Trophy winner, and one of the best all-around college players in history helped make No. 44 at Syracuse one of the most storied numbers in the annals of college football.

In all, 25 players have worn the jersey. Now, nobody will again. On Saturday _ 44 years after Ernie Davis won the Heisman _ the university will officially retire the number during Syracuse's Big East game against South Florida.

Jim Brown, the man who began the tradition of 44 in the 1950s, likes the idea of retiring the number, which was the brainchild of athletic director Daryl Gross.

``You have an athletic director who wants to bring us up-to-date,'' Brown said Friday evening. ``We did what we did. Here we are calling attention to the fact that we are going to recognize 44, and we're going to put it aside. We'll always have that number. Now, whatever we start will be for a new generation. I think it will be great for the university.

``Besides, you don't always hit with 44,'' the 69-year-old said. ``It's not an automatic number. Everybody that's designated 44 might not reach the greatness, and it can be a burden to some.''

It wasn't to Brown, who was a four-sport star at Syracuse, also excelling in lacrosse, track and basketball. He rushed for 2,091 yards on 361 carries and scored 24 touchdowns for the Orange, averaging 5.8 yards per carry, and also had eight interceptions while playing defense.

Brown, a unanimous All-America selection as a senior in 1956 and fifth in the Heisman voting, went on to greatness with the Cleveland Browns of the NFL. He was rookie of the year in 1957, a two-time league MVP, and was selected to nine straight Pro Bowls before abruptly retiring in his prime at age 29. He is the only player enshrined in the college football, pro football and lacrosse halls of fame.

When head coach Ben Schwartzwalder said goodbye to Brown, he welcomed Davis, who donned 44 and promptly ran into the Syracuse record books.

As a sophomore in 1959, Davis led Syracuse to an 11-0 record and its only national championship. In the Orange's 23-14 win over Texas in the Cotton Bowl for the national title, Davis was named MVP after rushing for 57 yards and one touchdown and catching one pass _ an 87-yard touchdown.

At Syracuse, Davis had 360 carries for 2,386 yards and 28 touchdowns and averaged 6.6 yards per carry. He was selected with the first overall pick in the 1962 NFL draft by the Browns but died of leukemia the next year at age 23 before ever suiting up and playing in the same backfield with Brown.

Before he died, Davis made sure the tradition of 44 was in good hands. He went along on a recruiting trip to visit Floyd Little.

``I met with Ernie on a snowy day in Connecticut,'' said Little, who was a three-time All-America halfback and an electrifying punt returner for the Orange from 1964-66. ``He had just won the Heisman and he was so impressive. He said, 'I wore the number, Jim Brown wore the number. It wasn't so bad for us. I'm confident you'll do well.' I said OK. I wanted to pattern my life after his.''

Little said he had mixed emotions about shelving 44 at first but soon changed his mind.

``I kind of like that number being held in high esteem,'' he said. ``I guess there's a lot of pressure. They offered it to Joe Morris and he declined. I don't know today coming in if I would like that kind of pressure.

``The retiring of this number _ this is something. All of this fanfare is going to energize everybody. But I don't think Ben would have retired it. He needed that number to acquire some of the players that he needed.''
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