The Express - a tribute to Ernie Davis Print
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Thursday, 04 September 2008 21:22
NCAAF Headline News

 SYRACUSE, N.Y. (AP) -It's been nearly a half century since Ernie Davis became the first black to win the Heisman Trophy. If the story of his all-too-brief, but powerful life has dimmed over the decades since his untimely death, it's about to be resurrected on the silver screen.
Universal Pictures will debut ``The Express'' next Friday night in a world premiere at the Landmark Theatre in downtown Syracuse, where Davis often went while he was a student. On Thursday night, the current Syracuse football team was given a sneak preview at a suburban mall and players left in awe.
``I can never imagine myself in this country like that,'' senior Bruce Williams said. ``His whole life he stood up for what he believed in. I can't even get the words to think about it.''
The movie is based on the 1983 biography ``Ernie Davis: The Elmira Express,'' by Robert C. Gallagher. Davis is played by Rob Brown, who bears an uncanny likeness to the former star running back, and Syracuse coach Ben Schwartzwalder is played by Dennis Quaid.
The movie, which deals heavily with the relationship between the coach and Davis, is powerful from the opening minute, poignantly depicting the racism of the day.
``Get your black ass back to Africa, boy!'' an opponent shouts at Davis before a play.
Davis was born in 1939, in New Salem, Pa. His parents separated shortly after his birth, and he grew up in poverty in Uniontown, a coal-mining town 50 miles south of Pittsburgh, where he was raised by his grandparents.
At age 12, Davis moved to live with his mother in Elmira, N.Y., and it was there that he emerged as a star. He became a high school All-American in football and basketball.
More than 30 colleges, including UCLA and Notre Dame, recruited Davis to play football, but Syracuse, just 90 miles to the north, had an advantage. Jim Brown, the first in a line of star running backs to play for Schwartzwalder and the man who began the legend of No. 44 at Syracuse, had graduated in 1956 and Schwartzwalder asked him to help recruit Davis.
Brown had endured countless racist taunts, too, while playing for Syracuse, a virtually all-white school at the time.
As a freshman and one of only three blacks on the team, Davis listened to the ``white girl speech'' (no dating allowed) and even endured his share of racist taunts from teammates. And he knew he was in the spotlight.
``Everybody is watching me, waiting for me to make a mistake,'' Davis says in the film.
Davis's stature on campus changed his sophomore year in 1959, his first year as a starter. He rushed for a team-high 686 yards and scored 10 touchdowns to power the Orange to a 10-0 record, the nation's No. 1 ranking, and a Cotton Bowl showdown with No. 2-ranked Texas.
On the bus ride south, Davis views a microcosm of America at a time when the Brown vs. Board of Education case helped pave the way for desegregation of schools, Rosa Parks made history when she arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a segregated bus in Alabama, and the NAACP picketed Woolworth's for integrated lunch counters.
When the team arrives in Dallas, Davis learns the Aristocrat Hotel doesn't allow blacks. Davis then hurt a hamstring in practice for the Cotton Bowl but was determined to play. ``This is not just a game anymore,'' he says.
When the Longhorns rallied to within 15-14 in the third quarter, Davis scored on an 87-yard halfback option pass from Syracuse captain Ger Schwedes to clinch the school's lone national championship. Davis was most valuable player of the game.
He went on to break many of Brown's records. Davis gained 2,386 rushing yards, eclipsing Brown's 2,091, and in his 1961 Heisman-winning season rushed for 823 yards and 12 touchdowns.
``He was very articulate, he was smart, and he was a kind person, a very kind human being,'' said Brown, who some think should have won the Heisman but didn't because he was black. ``The thing I admired most about him was that he was able to make all people care about him. Race was something he was able to bridge beautifully.''
The future seemed bright. Hoping to team the talented Davis with Brown, Cleveland Browns owner Art Modell traded star receiver Bobby Mitchell to the Washington Redskins in return for the NFL draft rights to Davis.
Modell selected Davis as the first overall selection in the 1962 draft, but before the former Orange stars could ever suit up together for the Browns, Davis contracted leukemia.
In March 1963, while in remission, Davis wrote an article for The Saturday Evening Post, sounding almost like Lou Gehrig when the great Yankee slugger bade farewell to the game he loved: ``Some people say I am unlucky. I don't believe it,'' Davis wrote. ``And I don't want to sound as if I am particularly brave or unusual. Sometimes I still get down, and sometimes I feel sorry for myself. Nobody is just one thing all the time.
``But when I look back, I can't call myself unlucky. My 23rd birthday was December 14. In these years I have had more than most people get in a lifetime.''
Davis died two months later.
To this day, he remains the pride of Elmira. A statue was erected in his honor, and the neighborhood center where he spent spare time as a child was renamed for him. His mother, Marie Fleming, lived there until she died in May.
``The Express'' could make Davis identifiable to younger generations. And that it's being released in a year when this country has its first black presidential candidate might have made Davis smile.
``It'll go beyond football games,'' Syracuse head coach Greg Robinson said. ``There are so many messages in that movie that I think we can all take from. I think it'll run throughout this country and a lot of other parts of this world for a long time.''
 

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