Express Regrets

A new film simplifies Syracuse star Ernie Davis
October 12, 2008

ON THE set of The Express in June, Dennis Quaid lamented that so few Americans know the story of Ernie Davis, the first black Heisman Trophy winner. Davis, a running back who hailed from a poor Pennsylvania coal-mining town, dominated college football at the dawn of the civil rights era. He led Syracuse to a national title in 1959, took the Heisman as a senior and in '62 became the first black player chosen No. 1 in the NFL draft. But he never played a pro game: A few months after being drafted he was told that he had leukemia, and he died less than a year later, at 23. "It's the perfect storm of a sports tragedy," said Quaid, who plays Davis's Syracuse coach, Ben Schwartzwalder. "It's Brian's Song, but better."

The Express, which opens this Friday, beautifully depicts a simpler era in college football, a time when the game was still young. But if the tactics and equipment were simple, Davis and Schwartzwalder weren't. Davis, played by Rob Brown (Finding Forrester), experienced racism as a child, and in the film we see former Syracuse great Jim Brown pressuring Davis to use his fame to aid the civil rights effort. In one scene Davis explores an NAACP meeting, but for all the cheap shots he took on and off the field because of his color—his treatment by Texas players during the 1960 Cotton Bowl is particularly unsettling—Davis never became an activist or even, it would seem, lashed out in anger.

Unfortunately, The Express barely explores Davis's emotional temperance, depicting him instead as simply the world's nicest guy. Quaid does his character more justice. Schwartzwalder, a former World War II paratrooper, comes off as a pragmatic racist, a coach who recruited talented black players but forbade them from dating white women. As one black player in The Express explains, "Coach likes winning more than he dislikes Negroes."

Quaid balances Schwartzwalder's gruffness and humanity, but the film abandons the coach just when he's starting to grow as a man so it can focus on Davis's illness. Quaid was right: The Express is Brian's Song all over again. But it could have been more.

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