Forgotten hero Ernie Davis showed courage under fire
October 10, 2008 8:00 AM
Rob Brown as college football hero Ernie Davis in "The Express."
By Barbara Vancheri Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
As anyone with a remote and an itchy trigger finger knows, there is no shortage of sports on TV, whether or not you get ESPN2. But the best sports movies, such as "Brian's Song," "Field of Dreams" and "Miracle," have always been about more than just the playing field.
"The Express" is about Ernie Davis, the Syracuse University running back who was the first African-American player to win the Heisman Trophy. And if the world isn't exactly color-blind today, as the presidential race has reminded us, it roiled with racism five or six decades ago.
Davis battled prejudice on and off the field (including in the locker room and the shabby, shameful accommodations in the South) and signed a record rookie contract with the Cleveland Browns, only to be diagnosed with an illness that would steal his dream and his life.
Based on a biography by Robert Gallagher and directed by Gary Fleder, "The Express" tells the story of Davis in a way that reminds us what college sports -- and, more importantly, this country -- were like not so long ago.
Racist fans showered players with debris and insults, coaches warned the few African-American players to steer clear of white women, and Davis lived and performed with a weight few shouldered: "Everybody's watching me and waiting for me to make a mistake."
"The Express" opens with a scene that may be apocryphal but symbolizes what lies ahead.
Collecting bottles along the train tracks in Uniontown in 1949, Ernie is confronted by white boys who challenge his right to be there and try to steal his bag. Ernie, 10, stutters but then tucks the sack under his arm and runs for daylight.
He soon trades Pennsylvania coal country and his grandparents' home for Elmira, N.Y., where his mother has relocated. Davis (Rob Brown) quickly excels on the football field and is recruited by Syracuse coach Ben Schwartzwalder (Dennis Quaid).
When the gruff coach assigns Davis the same number worn by alum Jim Brown, the newcomer protests, "I'm not Jim Brown." The coach responds, "God, I hope not. God, I hope so."
"The Express" follows Davis through college, Schwartzwalder's drive for a national championship and the running back's emergence as a standout and target. At a West Virginia game, the coach fears allowing Davis to score and an opponent asks, "How many 'coloreds' you got playing for you?" and then suggests they "got no discipline."
Davis had nothing but discipline and courage, and Rob Brown -- plucked from high school obscurity to star opposite Sean Connery in "Finding Forrester" -- does him justice. He looks like Davis and brings a natural athleticism, quiet dignity and sense of honor to the role.
Excellent support comes from Omar Benson Miller ("Miracle at St. Anna") as Davis' best friend, Darrin Dewitt Henson as Jim Brown and Charles S. Dutton as Davis' grandfather, the embodiment of patience and kindness.
The movie makes Davis almost too good to be true and the story is, except for some key scenes where the color is leeched out, conventionally told and shot, unlike, say, "Any Given Sunday." But "The Express" pays proper, overdue tribute to a young man who more than deserved his place in the record -- and the history -- books.