He thought of himself as an average African-American 10-year-old in 1949. Unfortunately, Ernie Davis was an average 10-year-old who stuttered. But the scripture that his grandfather, Pops, used to read (“By the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace that was bestowed upon me was not in vain”) and the image of baseball star Jackie Robinson battling against the odds gave the young boy hope.
Ernie turned to that clean, graceful stretch of 21 straight lines, five yards apart—the football field. There he didn’t stutter. There he didn’t have to talk. There he could simply run.
By the time he was a senior in high school he was running around, past or over every other kid on the field. The college reps soon came calling. And Syracuse University’s head coach Ben Schwartzwalder was one of them. Desperately wanting to find a replacement for his running back Jim Brown, the coach thought this kid just might do the trick.
He didn’t have a hard time convincing Ernie. Brown was a hero of his and to fill that jersey would be a dream come true.
So together, the hard-nosed Schwartzwalder—steeped in unspoken segregationist attitudes of the day—and the talented speedster Ernie Davis start to shape each other and their team of Orangemen into world beaters.
Ernie is steadfast in his quest to be the best he can be on and off the field. Coach Schwartzwalder recognizes the young man’s tireless work ethic and, even though Ernie is ineligible to play in his freshman year, he puts him on the varsity team to spur the rest of the more seasoned athletes to greater heights.
Pops takes Ernie to the corner drugstore to watch Jackie Robinson play baseball on TV, and the boy is moved to see a black man playing on the same team as whites. And just as he was inspired by that ballplayer, Ernie tries to inspire others by firmly standing up to racial injustice—even when that could mean putting himself in harm’s way. Eventually the coach and all of Ernie’s teammates follow his example and stand with him.
In a film clip, Martin Luther King points out that, “Violence is self-defeating—He who lives by the sword, dies by the sword.”
Pops is a godly and loving man who opens his home to care for Ernie and his cousins. When Ernie is approached to play college ball, Pops looks out for his grandson’s interests and quizzes the coach on the kind of man he is. Later, when a game-winning Ernie comes home to visit, everyone else wants to know about his college football career, but Pops asks about his grades. When Pops passes away, Ernie walks into the old man’s bedroom and sees an entire wall covered with newspaper stories about two people: Jackie Robinson and Ernie Davis.
Ernie says, “Football is just a game. What matters is what you play for.”
Pops prays and quotes Scripture at the dinner table, and he has his family members read from the Bible. He patiently works his stuttering grandson through a verse and points out how it applies to him.
A player asks the coach how he can call himself a “White Christian” and still use black players.
Ernie dates a girl he meets on the Syracuse campus. In one scene they embrace and kiss on his hotel bed. He unbuttons her blouse, exposing her bra, and runs a finger seductively down her chest to her stomach.
As would be expected with a football flick, hard-hitting players deliver bone-crunching blows throughout. On one occasion a white player purposely delivers a late, full-throttle hit on Ernie that drives him tumbling backward over a bench and crashing to the ground. (Ernie refuses to get angry and complain about the cheap shot, though, saying, “I do my talking on the field.”) During some games in the South, players tackle Ernie and maliciously drive their elbows and knees into him when he’s prone on the field. Spectators throw bottles at black players. Once, Ernie’s teammates come to his defense, and two teams tangle in a fistfight-driven brawl.
Off the field, Ernie and a teammate get into a fight in the locker room that results in a bloodied nose. As boys, Ernie and his cousin are picking up empty bottles along the railroad tracks when a large group of white boys stop them and demand that they give up their treasure. Young Ernie runs and barely misses being hit by the kids swinging sticks and bats.
The s-word is spit out nearly 10 times. There are about a half-dozen uses each of “a–,” “h—” and “d–n.” God’s name is profaned in combination with “d–n” at least a dozen times. The n-word makes numerous appearances along with other racial slurs.
Ernie’s teammates celebrate a victory at a barbecue joint, where some of them drink beer.
While used to illuminate injustice, ugly prejudice and racism are nakedly evident throughout The Express. A few examples: Along with racial slurs, a group of boys call a stuttering 10-year-old Ernie “stupid” and “retarded.” When young Ernie joins a Small Fry football league, he and another black youth are the only ones denied team jerseys. When Ernie first arrives on the Syracuse campus, he smiles at a blonde cheerleader—and is later pulled aside by the coach who warns him not to cross the lines between blacks and whites. The team goes to a hotel in Texas and are told that “coloreds” are not allowed. The black team members are ushered to another building and given filthy quarters.
Ernie Davis was a sports hero in the truest sense.
Here was a young man who came from a broken home and a life of poverty, and through hard work, commitment to excellence and strength of character became the best in his sport, receiving college football’s highest honor—the Heisman Trophy. Along the way this gifted athlete helped prompt a world of onlookers to challenge their own attitudes about racial inequality. And with each hard-earned victory, Ernie enhanced the self-esteem of a downtrodden African-American community of the 1950s and ’60s. Now that’s a story worth telling and, interestingly, it’s a page from our national history that isn’t very well known.
It’s surprising, then, that with all Ernie Davis’ life story has to offer, director Gary Fleder’s cinematic version ends up feeling a bit flat.
“The challenge in doing a biopic … is how do you distill a man’s life into 2 1/2 hours?” the director mused in a recent interview.
Good question. The pieces of this chronicle all seem to be there. Lead Rob Brown is handsome and earnest, and his portrayal of Davis’ path of perseverance and eventual tragedy rings true. On-the-field action is exhilarating. And the racist rejection of Ernie by fellow students and college football boosters is appropriately disheartening. But for me the parts just didn’t add up to an emotionally satisfying whole.
Far more frustrating than that, though (and maybe partly to blame), is The Express‘ inclusion of totally unnecessary vulgarity and heavy-handed abuses of God’s name. Families seeking a real-world history lesson will find more “realism” than they might expect in a PG movie ostensibly designed to bring a new generation up to speed on events that really should matter to it. For a football movie with aspirations to teach and inspire, that’s a very disappointing fumble.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.