“What matters is what you play for.”
Rob Brown stars as football star running back Ernie Davis with Dennis Quaid playing his famous Syracuse coach Ben Schwartzwalder in this inspiring drama. Audiences get great sports moments (even more satisfying for new generations who don’t know the circumstances and/or outcomes) as Brown gets emotional inspiration then gives it as the uniquely talented Davis. Newcomer Nicole Bahaire plays Ernie’s love interest Sarah Ward as the two grow closer culminating in a touching scene at a restaurant. Brown’s one-on-one scene with Chadwick Boseman, who plays future football star Floyd Little, near the film’s end also impresses.
Quaid produces a grounded performance as Davis’s college coach who learns to grow along with Davis on and off the field. On the field, the coach uses a totalitarian approach with grueling practice drills like the “circle run.” “That’s just the way I want it done,” says Coach when a colleague questions his decision making. Off the field and in the world outside campus, Coach learns to concede how certain events must be addressed before succeeding on the football field. The coach trains his players hard to outperform the other team and run right past them. Davis does exactly that and the coach loves it. “I will take one on one out there all day long,” says Coach when creating individual plays for Davis.
The supporting cast keeps the film’s authentic feel while putting more focus towards the talented, yet humble Davis. Darrin Henson plays football great Jim Brown and veteran actor Saul Rubinek plays young Cleveland Browns owner Art Modell. Another recognizable actor, Charles S. Dutton, stars as Willie ‘Pops’ Davis, an important family role model for Ernie. Experienced voice talent provider/actor Clancy Brown plays Coach’s assistant, Roy Simmons Sr. Omar Benson Miller provides some comic relief and perspective as Davis’ friend and teammate Jack Buckley.
In the plot, written by screenwriter Charles Leavitt, audiences see all events from Ernie’s point-of-view except some moments among announcers, players, coaches and NFL owners. From a pinnacle football game against Texas to watching Jackie Robinson play, filmmakers channel the unpredictable, relatable emotion of sports easily to the audience. Filmmakers lay the groundwork, beginning in 1949 as Davis walks down the railroad tracks singing the classic Pepsi song (my late Papa taught me that one) then transition to his personal realization of playing football.
Once Davis moves on to the gridiron, director Gary Fleder and his crew capture the sounds of the game very well, especially the drum-infused band music at the beginning of Davis’s first game. Filmmakers pepper tense gridiron moments with humor, understanding, and grace, including a locker room prayer and predictable, yet effective, halftime speech from Coach Schwartzwalder. Filmmakers flash forward through most of Davis’s later collegiate years (without text subtitles) to keep the two hour and 10 minute running time down, which does not seem long at all.
Recommended and rated PG for thematic content, violence, brief sensuality, and racist language. This film is based on the book Ernie Davis: The Elmira Express by Robert Gallagher.