Inspirational sports stories have been produced since the advent of film. So many sports films follow a cookie cutter plot of failure to redemption, there are too many to mention. On occasion though, a story comes along that transcends sports and becomes a tale about the strength of the human spirit. The Express, based on the book The Elmira Express: the Story of Ernie Davis by Robert C. Gallagher is a story about courage, belief, and civil rights.
Ernie Davis was the first African-American to win the Heisman Trophy in 1961. He was the number one pick of the 1962 NFL draft. Immediately traded by the Washington Redskins (whose owner vowed to never draft a black player) to the Cleveland Browns, Davis never played a down in pro football after he was diagnosed with leukemia in 1962. He died on May 18, 1963 at the age of 23.
More than fifty colleges and universities offered Ernie Davis a scholarship to play football for them. Following a talk with his hero, Jim Brown (Darrin DeWitt Henson), Davis decided to attend Syracuse University as his hero had done. When he arrived at Syracuse in the late fifties, he found an uneasy racial climate. He was advised to not even look at a white girl.
His coach, Ben Schwartzwalder (Dennis Quaid), starts off intolerant but in awe of the young man's talent. While Schwartzwalder was intolerant, he couldn't be considered racist for the time. He promised Davis he would push him to make the most of his talent, and he did. The problem was the coach had no knowledge of what life was really like for African Americans. Gradually developing a friendship with Davis was part of Schwartzwalder's growth process.
Primarily set during Syracuse's undefeated run to its maiden National Championship in 1959, The Express focuses on some of Davis' greatest moments on the gridiron and his toughest moments off: his MVP performance at the 1959 Cotton Bowl in Dallas. He and two other players were warned to stay in the middle of the rest of their teammates for their own protection. Davis was told he could come to the banquet to receive his MVP trophy, but he could not stay for the rest of the banquet because it was being held at a segregated venue. Most of the team opted to join Davis for their own celebration.