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The Express

Theatrical release poster
Directed by Gary Fleder
Produced by John Davis
Written by Charles Leavitt
Robert C. Gallagher
Starring Rob Brown
Charles S. Dutton
Dennis Quaid
Music by Mark Isham
Editing by Padraic McKinley
William Steinkamp
Distributed by Universal Pictures
Release date(s) October 10, 2008
Country United States
Language English

The Express (also known as The Express: The Ernie Davis Story) is an American sports film directed by Gary Fleder released by Universal Pictures on October 10, 2008.[1][2] It is based on the life of Syracuse University football player Ernie Davis, the first African American to win the Heisman Trophy.



The movie begins with Ernie Davis as a young African American boy growing up in Uniontown, Pennsylvania in the late 1940s. Ernie and his same-aged uncle, Will Davis, Jr., experience racism by neighborhood bullies, which forces Ernie to use his superior athletic ability to escape harm. Ernie lives with his grandparents, including his grandfather Will Davis (affectionally known as "Pops"), who helps Ernie overcome a stuttering problem by reading passages from the Bible. Pops also introduces Ernie to the story of Jackie Robinson, the first African American to play in Major League Baseball, and Ernie pins a picture of Jackie Robinson to his bedroom wall. Ernie's mother, Marie Davis, eventually returns to inform the family that she has remarried and can now afford to raise Ernie at her home in Elmira, New York.

Upon relocating to Elmira, Ernie is excited to see a Small Fry Football League and joins the local team. Although he experiences slights because of his race, he excels on the football field as a running back and is clearly the best player on the field.

Several years later, Syracuse University football head coach Ben Schwartzwalder is searching for a running back to address the absence of Jim Brown, the graduating player completing his All-American senior season. After rejecting several talented prospects because of perceived laziness or injuries, Schwartzwalder is intrigued after seeing footage of Ernie playing for Elmira Free Academy.

Schwartzwalder convinces Brown to accompany him on a recruiting visit to see Ernie and his family in hopes of luring him to sign with Syracuse. Ernie is in awe when meeting Brown, reciting his football statistics while shaking his hand. Brown confides in Ernie that, while his time at Syracuse will be difficult because of racism, Schwartzwalder will make him a better player. Ernie decides to enroll at Syracuse and spurns the recruiting efforts of many other schools, including Notre Dame.

Ernie arrives at Syracuse and is escorted through the campus by Athletic Director Lew Andreas. Ernie walks into the trophy room and scans the pictures of past Heisman Trophy winners, recognizing that no winner to date was African American. Schwartzwalder tells Ernie that no Syracuse player had won the trophy to date, but that he should focus on winning games, not trophies.

Ernie begins practice with the team and quickly demonstrates that he is a superior athlete. Schwartzwalder informs his coaching staff that he wants Ernie to practice with and be assigned to the varsity team and not the freshman team, even though athletes are ineligible to play varsity football during their freshman year. Schwartzwalder also assigns Ernie the jersey number 44, which Brown had previously worn. These actions cause some dissension among veteran members of the team, who feel that Ernie is getting preferential treatment without having earned that right. Ernie faces harsh treatment from some of his teammates during practices, to which he responds with equally physical play. During Ernie's freshman season, he watches from the sidelines as the football team fails to meet expectations, including losing to lowly-regarded Holy Cross in a driving rainstorm.

After Schwartzwalder sees Ernie looking at a white cheerleader who appears to be flirting with him, he calls Ernie into his office and informs him that there are "some lines" he cannot cross. Ernie's friend and teammate Jack Buckley (nicknamed "J.B.") tells him that African American women are essentially non-existent at Syracuse, which leads Ernie to get very intrigued when he spots an attractive young African American woman on campus. He eventually meets her at a school dance, and learns that her name is Sarah Ward and that she is studying at Cornell to be a teacher.

At the start of the 1959 college football season, Schwartzwalder informs the team that Syracuse has never won a national championship, but that it was his goal to win one that season. Ernie immediately excels playing for the varsity team, accumulating rushing yards and touchdowns to lead Syracuse to victories over Kansas, Pitt, Penn State, and Holy Cross.

During a long weekend, Ernie returns to Uniontown to visit Pops and Will, Jr. Will, Jr. takes Ernie to an NAACP meeting and challenges Ernie to use his new-found notoriety for something more, so that he can assist in the civil rights movement. After returning to campus, Ernie learns that Pops has died and returns to Uniontown for the funeral.

When the team travels to West Virginia University to play the Mountaineers, Schwartzwalder warns the team that they will face abuse, hostility and racism from the crowd like they had never before experienced. Although Syracuse controlled the game, Schwartzwalder removes Ernie from the game before he can score a touchdown because he fears that the crowd will react negatively and violently. On the next series of downs, Ernie refuses to be removed from the game while near the goal line and scores a touchdown. Ernie and Schwartzwalder have an angry confrontation on the bench where Schwartzwalder demands that Ernie follow his instructions and Ernie demands that Schwartzwalder respect him as an equal part of the team and not give in to racism.

After Syracuse defeats UCLA to conclude the regular season undefeated and ranked number one in the nation, Schwartzwalder informs the team that they have two choices: either play the ninth-ranked Georgia Bulldogs in the Orange Bowl in Miami, or the second-ranked Texas Longhorns in the Cotton Bowl Classic in Dallas. The team, led by Ernie, unanimously vote to play Texas much to Schwartzwalder's delight, who had told the team, "I believe that in order to be the best, you must beat the best."

During the long bus trip to Texas, Ernie and the team see parts of the country affected by Jim Crow laws, and also see African-Americans who cheer on the team for their accomplishments. Upon arriving at the hotel, the team bus is met by a loud and raucous protest by those who believe in segregation. Though told by Lew Andreas that the hotel does not allow African Americans to stay as guests, Schwartzwalder and the team inform Andreas that they will not allow their own players to stay at a different location. The hotel eventually finds sparse, and unsuitable, accommodations for Ernie, J.B., and another African American teammate. During practice, Ernie injures his hamstring and is taken to the locker room for treatment. While in the locker room, Andreas tells Schwartzwalder that he believes it would be for the best if Ernie does not play, showing him racist and threatening hate mail that the team received since having arrived in Texas. Schwartzwalder refuses to give in to the threats, and a defiant Ernie overhears the conversation and boldly tells Andreas, "I'm playing! Do you hear me? I'm playing!" To which Schwartzwalder responded, "You're Goddamn right, you are!"

During the Cotton Bowl Classic on January 1, 1960, Ernie gamely attempts to lead his team to victory but is hampered by an injured leg, biased officiating, and a hostile opponent that attempts to further injure him. At the conclusion of the first half, the game is marred by an ugly brawl involving both benches emptying after several Texas players deliberately attempt to hurt Ernie. Syracuse takes a 15-0 lead into halftime, when Schwartzwalder informs Ernie that he will not be playing in the second half. Despite Schwartzwalder having delivered an inspiring halftime speech, Syracuse loses momentum without Ernie and finds their lead cut to 15-14. At the beginning of the fourth quarter, Ernie reemerges from the locker room ready to resume playing, convincing Schwartzwalder that he can play and contribute. Ernie scores a crucial touchdown and makes a game-ending defensive play to preserve a Syracuse victory and earn the team their first national championship. After the game, Ernie is informed that he has won the Cotton Bowl Classic Most Valuable Player award, but that the award ceremony is to take place in a "whites only" country club. The team refuses to attend the ceremony and instead celebrates at a local bar by dancing to rock n roll music and hoisting the national championship trophy.

The story resumes almost two years later, when Ernie wins the 1961 Heisman Trophy after his senior season. He meets President John F. Kennedy, who congratulates him on his accomplishments.

Ernie becomes a member of the National Football League Cleveland Browns, who trade up to acquire his rights after the owner of the Washington Redskins refuses to sign an African-American player. Ernie joins his idol, Jim Brown, as a member of the team.

Ernie is disturbed by a series of nosebleeds, and while practicing for the College All-Star Game, loses consciousness. His doctors cannot accurately diagnose his medical condition. However, during a practice for the Cleveland Browns, he is informed by team owner Art Modell that he will be unable to play during the upcoming season because of his medical condition. It is only then that he shares the seriousness of his illness with his girlfriend, Sarah.

Schwartzwalder continues to offer support to Ernie and stand by him during this troubling time. Schwartzwalder also asks Ernie to come to Connecticut with him to assist him on a recruiting mission to sign a talented high school running back, Floyd Little. Little had already committed to Notre Dame, but Ernie tries to convince him to sign with Syracuse instead. When Little first meets Ernie, he is in awe of him and recites his collegiate football statistics while shaking his hand, much like Ernie did while meeting Jim Brown four years earlier.

Soon after, Ernie holds a press conference and announces he has been diagnosed with leukemia. He vows to fight the disease and promises to play football again one day. The Cleveland Browns honor Ernie by allowing him to suit up in a team uniform and join the team while running out before a game with the Chicago Bears. Schwartzwalder meets him in the tunnel entering the stadium to tell him that Little had committed to Syracuse. Ernie runs out on the field and is met by thundering applause by the crowd and by the Bears' and Browns' players, who have created an honor line for him.

The movie concludes with a written narrative explaining that Ernie died on May 18, 1963, that 10,000 people attended his funeral service, and that President Kennedy sent a sympathy telegram that was read at the service. It also explains that Little continued the tradition of wearing the uniform #44 while playing at Syracuse to honor Ernie.


Rob Brown (Finding Forrester, Coach Carter) stars as Davis and Dennis Quaid (The Rookie, Playing by Heart, The Day After Tomorrow) plays Davis' Syracuse coach, Ben Schwartzwalder. The role of Pops is played by Charles S. Dutton (Rudy, Cry, the Beloved Country). The film is directed by Gary Fleder (Runaway Jury). The screenplay was written by Charles Leavitt (Blood Diamond) based on the authoritative biography by Robert C. Gallagher, Ernie Davis, The Elmira Express: the Story of a Heisman Trophy Winner. Cinematographer Kramer Morganthau (Fracture); production designer Nelson Coates (Runaway Jury), in his sixth feature collaboration with the director; editor William Steinkamp (Runaway Jury) in his fourth; and Editor Padraic McKinley, along with Costume Designer Abigail Murray (Runaway Jury), in her fourth, round out Fleder's creative team. Meticulous research was undertaken over several months to recreate the period uniforms and locations depicted, including the creation on film of several stadiums such as Archbold Stadium, that no longer exist.

Filming began in April 2007 at Chicago area locations including Lane Technical High School, Amundsen High School, J. Sterling Morton West High School in Berwyn, Northwestern University in Evanston (at Ryan Field, the Northwestern Football stadium), Aurora, Mooseheart, the Illinois Railway Museum in Union, Hyde Park (at the former Windemere Hotel) and on Olde Western Ave. in Blue Island.[3] It concluded its fifty-three day shoot at Syracuse University.[1]



The Express has made $9.6 million as of November 11, 2008. The Express has mostly positive reviews on Fandango and a 72% top critics rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

Historical criticism

Journalists and film critics noted that a scene of "racist vitriol"[4] involving the October 24, 1959 game between Syracuse and West Virginia University, was fictitious and, as Film Journal International critic Frank Lovece noted, "veers remarkably toward outright slander."[5] That game is "falsely shown as taking place at WVU's Mountaineer Field" in Morgantown, West Virginia, "rather than at Syracuse's own Archbold Stadium," the Orangemen's home field in New York state.

Additionally, Lovece found, "Aside from the fact that the game didn't even take place there, Schwartzwalder had earlier led West Virginia high-school teams to state championships, and was a beloved and respected figure with devoted fans there who wouldn't have given his teams any lip — so much so that on his death in 1993, WVU even instituted the Ben Schwartzwalder Trophy".[5] Syracuse quarterback Dick Easterly, who played with Davis in Morgantown the following year, on October 22, 1960, after the events of the Cotton Bowl Classic against the University of Texas, recalled no such events and said, "I apologize to the people of West Virginia because that did not happen. I don't blame people in West Virginia for being disturbed. The scene is completely fictitious."[6]

Syracuse center Patrick Whelan, a Davis teammate, said of the movie's inaccuracies, "[W]e’re sitting watching this thing, saying, 'Jeez, where did they get that from?'"[7] Screenwriter Charles Leavitt expressed surprise at the scene in the finished film, whose original script did not involve West Virginia.[8] However, Leavitt's explanation that "the scene was supposed to depict a 1958 game at Tar Heels Stadium in North Carolina" is inaccurate on all counts: Davis was a freshman in the 1958 season and therefore did not play on the Orangemen's varsity team; Syracuse did not play North Carolina in football until 1995; and the name of UNC's home field has been Kenan Stadium since its construction in 1927. In addition the story of the game, as far as sequence of plays and scores go, is considerably out of order.[9]

Moreover, some claim that the racial tension depicted in the 1960 Cotton Bowl Classic versus the Texas Longhorns is inaccurate, though this is highly disputed. Bobby Lackey, quarterback for the University of Texas states, "I told the Cotton Bowl people that those things didn't happen, and they were making up stories to try and sell more movie tickets, I wasn't going to watch any of that." Lackey continues, "Larry Stephens was my roommate, if anything, he was trying to get the guy into a fight so he could get him thrown out of the game because their athletes were so much better than ours. But I don't know a one of my teammates that said anything derogatory. How are you going to say the N-word in a football game and spit on somebody? Coach Royal would not have put up with that kind of behavior." "It was a long time ago, but I know we shook hands and told him nice game and that his team deserved to win," Lackey said. "Then we all walked off the field."[10]

However, Lou Maysel, in his University of Texas football history Here Come the Texas Longhorns, wrote that Stephens, "possibly the most even-tempered player on the Texas team," told John Brown, a black offensive tackle for Syracuse, "Keep your black ass out of it," when Brown protested a penalty to an official.[11] Brown stated that there were "guys who called us racist names on the field," including a Texas lineman who kept calling him "a big black dirty [expletive]."[12] Brown says that the player has since apologized and that he has forgiven the player. Additionally, Al Baker, Syracuse's black fullback, said after the game, "Oh, they were bad. One of them spit in my face as I carried the ball through the line."[11][13] Patrick Whelan and Dick Easterly, both white players for Syracuse, said that although the film may have fictionalized parts of the story, the 1960 Cotton Bowl Classic was the team's worst confrontation with racism.[7]

The order of games played and the score of at least one game was fictionalized for the movie. Penn State, a longtime rival of Syracuse, provided Syracuse with their toughest test of the season, in which the Orangemen improved to a 7-0 record, defeating Penn State 20-18.[14] The film places this game among the first three games of Syracuse's season, and cites the score of the game as 32-6. Ironically, the film premiered on October 3, 2008, in Syracuse's Landmark Theatre the day before Penn State defeated Syracuse 55-13 in a game during which Davis was honored at halftime.[15]


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