'The Express' in real life
Ernie Davis, who led Syracuse to a national championship in 1959, became the first African-American to win the Heisman Trophy in 1961. Along the way, he smashed the great Jim Brown's school records, setting new marks for career rushing yards (2,386) and points scored (220). Washington selected him with the No. 1 overall pick in the 1962 NFL draft, then traded his rights to Cleveland. It seemed Davis would join Brown, his boyhood hero, in the Browns backfield. But before he got a chance to play a single down of professional football, Davis was diagnosed with leukemia, and he died on May 18, 1963, at age 23.
Rob Brown and Dennis Quaid play Ernie Davis
and Ben Schwartzwalder in "The Express."
"The Express," a biopic about Davis that opens Friday, is -- at least in theory -- supposed to be based on his real life. The only full-length biography of Davis, "Ernie Davis: The Elmira Express, the Story of a Heisman Trophy Winner," by Robert C. Gallagher, is said to be the basis of the film, although friends like Jim Brown also had some input, according to the producers.
That's a lot of expertise, and there's also plenty of magazine and newspaper stories about Davis to fill any factual gaps. So just how closely does the celluloid version hew to Davis' real-life experiences? You be the judge.
In Reel Life: As a child, Ernie has a stuttering problem. He begins to overcome it when he says grace one night at the dinner table. Later, he's shown practicing his speech by reading the Bible out loud at night.
In Real Life: Davis did have a serious stuttering problem. Gallagher writes that Davis did overcome his problem by reading aloud -- "from his school books or sports books" -- but not from the Bible.
In Reel Life: As a young boy, Ernie is raised by his grandparents. Will Davis Jr. (Nelsan Ellis) is his uncle, but is only two years older. The two are raised like brothers, and remain close even after Ernie moves to Elmira with his mother at age 12.
In Real Life: Davis' mother did leave him to be raised by her parents, and did retrieve him when she got remarried -- when Ernie was 12. His grandparents, who dote on him in the movie, did dote on him in real life. However, Will Jr.'s real name is Chuck. Go figure.
In Reel Life: Davis plays for Elmira High School.
In Real Life: There is no Elmira High School in Elmira, N.Y. (There is one in Oregon, though). Davis played for Elmira Free Academy, which was one of Elmira's two high schools at the time.
In Reel Life: Early in the film, Davis (Rob Brown) is referred to as an athlete who excels in all sports. However, his athletic prowess -- in the film, that is -- is on display only on the football field.
In Real Life: In addition to football, Davis excelled in basketball and baseball at Elmira Free Academy. He was a high-school All-American in football and basketball his junior and senior years. "Ernie was a much better basketball player than football player," Jim Flynn, his high school hoops coach, told Sports Illustrated in 1989. He led EFA to a 66-1 record -- including a 52-game winning streak -- as a junior and senior, averaging 18.7 points per game in three varsity seasons. In baseball, he pitched and played first base, making first team all-conference in his three varsity seasons. At Syracuse, he played varsity basketball (you won't see this at all in the film), and in 1961, Sports Illustrated named him one of college sports' "noteworthy" all-around athletes.
In Reel Life: A year after the great Jim Brown (Darrin Dewitt Henson) graduates from Syracuse, head coach Ben Schwartzwalder (Dennis Quaid) is shown watching high school game tapes with his assistants. He says, in a very frustrated fashion, he has yet to see anyone who can come close to replacing Brown. An assistant clues him in: There's this kid from Elmira
Schwartzwalder says he doesn't want to deal with another Jim Brown (hinting strongly that Brown was difficult to deal with), and then says, in essence, "Show me the tape."
In Real Life: Davis got more than 50 football scholarship offers during his senior year, so it would have been a real stretch for the head coach at Syracuse, which is located less than 100 miles from Elmira, to be unaware of such a hot prospect from the same state. And in fact, Schwartzwalder knew Davis quite well. He knew that Davis' personality was very different than Brown's, and he also knew how much potential Davis had. "During Ernie's final two years in high school," writes Gallagher, "Schwartzwalder made approximately 30 trips to Elmira and on each occasion saw Ernie."
The real Ernie Davis had more than 50 scholarship offers. Schwartzwalder definitely knew about him.
In Reel Life: Still, it's not easy to convince Davis to choose Syracuse. So Schwartzwalder convinces Brown, who's already starring in the pros for Cleveland, to take a trip with him to Elmira and tell Ernie how good a choice Syracuse will be. During the trip, the two walk together for a while, and they arrive at a football field. Just by chance, Brown finds two lacrosse sticks and a ball, and teaches Ernie how to throw and catch, while also telling him a little lacrosse history. He also touts Schwartzwalder's coaching acumen.
In Real Life: It's a nice scene, and a wonderful nod to Brown's lacrosse prowess. The scene is accurate, in the sense that Brown did go along with Schwartzwalder one day to try to sway his college decision. But during the trip, Brown was swarmed by autograph seekers and was unable to spend any time alone with Davis. Surrounded by a crowd, all Brown could manage was to put his arm around Davis and say, "Go to Syracuse." No lacrosse. No long walk-and-talk. No talk about the coach. Three words: "Go to Syracuse."
In Reel Life: Davis gets off the bus, sees the splendor that is the Syracuse University campus and walks to Archbold Stadium.
In Real Life: Most of the movie was filmed in Chicago, but the cast did visit Syracuse once for some crucial shots, including the one described above. There was only one catch: Archbold Stadium no longer exists. Throughout the rest of the movie, Northwestern's Ryan Field stands in for Archbold. But for this particular scene, the filmmakers decided to simulate the stadium using computer graphics.
In Reel Life: Ernie's best friend and roommate is Jack Buckley (Omar Benson Miller), a huge lineman who's called "JB" throughout the film.
In Real Life: Buckley is a fictional composite character. Ernie was good friends with offensive tackle John Brown, who would be drafted by the Browns in 1961. Brown, a 6-foot-2, 248-pounder, went on to play 136 games over 10 seasons, splitting his career between Cleveland and Pittsburgh. Davis was very close friends with his college roommate, John Mackey, who went on to enjoy a Hall of Fame pro career with the Colts. He is considered one of the greatest tight ends ever. But neither Brown nor Mackey are referred to in the film.
Roger Springfield, director of media properties for the SU athletic department, explained the name and fact changes to the Syracuse Post-Standard. "It's a movie," he explained. "It's not a documentary. There's dramatic license." Apparently, the filmmakers thought there would be more drama if Davis had only one close friend instead of two and if that friend were portrayed as kindhearted but dull.
Davis and Syracuse beat Texas in the Cotton Bowl
to cap the 1959 season. He won the Heisman in '61.
In Reel Life: At a social mixer early in their freshman year, JB and Ernie meet two girls. Davis is smitten by one of them, who's named Sarah (Nicole Behaire) and is a high school senior. Ernie and Sarah are a couple almost immediately, remain so throughout his college years and talk about marriage as Davis' pro career is about to begin.
In Real Life: Davis and "Sarah" -- actually, Helen Gott -- dated casually throughout much of his time at Syracuse, but didn't become serious until his senior year.
In Reel Life: Ernie begins varsity play in 1959, but the rest is a bit of a blur: Syracuse's 1959, 1960 and 1961 campaigns all seem to run together, with few markers to help viewers distinguish one season from another.
In Real Life: It has become a sports film visual cliché: the montage career, in which many sports seasons are combined into one long one. Apparently, writers and directors don't think moviegoers want to be bothered with having to distinguish between seasons. During Davis' sophomore year, the Orangemen go undefeated and win the 1959 national championship with an impressive Cotton Bowl win over Texas. In 1961, Davis' Heisman-winning senior year, Syracuse, ranked only 14th with an 8-3 mark, earns a trip to the Liberty Bowl.
There's a discussion going on among readers regarding racially charged scenes that take place when Syracuse visits West Virginia. After seeing the discussion, I did some research. Note that I have not looked at every account of the game nor spoken to every witness who's still alive. Also note that two people can see the same game and set of events yet experience and remember them in entirely different ways. So all I can really disprove are some factual events that did and didn't take place, and try to provide some useful context.
In Reel Life: Syracuse plays against West Virginia at Morgantown, and Davis and other players are subjected to awful racial abuse. In one key segment, Davis runs the ball inside the five, and the coach pulls him so another player, who is white, can score the touchdown. The coach says, approximately, "They won't let you score here," appearing to refer to both the referees and the crowd.
In Real Life: Didn't happen. During Davis' three varsity seasons, the Orange played at Morgantown only once, in 1960, when Davis was a junior.
Syracuse trounced the Mountaineers 45-0. Davis gained 125 yards on 14 carries, and scored twice, tallying the Orange's first TD on a 2-yard run and its fourth on a 5-yard carry. In the New York Times account of the game there's no indication that there was unusual racial animosity during the contest, or that Davis was taken out so a white player could score.
It's possible that the West Virginia sequence is an oblique reference to frustrations of Jim Brown, who was perhaps the primary source for the filmmakers concerning what Davis' experience "was like." Here's the New York Times on a Syracuse at West Virginia contest from Nov. 19, 1955:
"West Virginia fumbles and Syracuse penalties played an important part during the cold, slippery afternoon. Brown took the opening kickoff 71 yards to the Mountaineer 19 before Bob Moss hauled him down. Two plays later, Brown went over from the 16, but the play was called back because of a holding penalty ... Syracuse lost possession on the 21."
Perhaps in that 1955 game the referees, as depicted in the film, were unfairly penalizing Syracuse: the Orange were penalized for a total of 95 yards, West Virginia only 24. Given the holding penalty and the fact that Brown had a great day for Syracuse but never scored, it's also possible that, as depicted in the film, the refs displayed a racial bias in calling penalties when Brown touched the end zone, or got close. Possible.
In Davis' only game at West Virginia, such bias didn't seem to be a major factor. The only note about the crowd was that it was freezing and dispirited because Syracuse whomped their team.
What about the crowd's racist slurs and other unruliness (to put it mildly), as indicated by the film? Maybe there were some fans who were like that, but it's not remembered that way by some key eyewitnesses. "I apologize to the people of West Virginia because that did not happen,'" former Syracuse quarterback Dick Easterly, who played in that game, is quoted as saying in West Virginia University's Daily Athenaeum. "The scene is completely fictitious."
In Reel Life: After Syracuse completes its 11-0 season, the coach tells the team that they've been offered to play in either the Orange or the Cotton Bowl, and that it's the team's choice. The Cotton Bowl would pit the Orangemen against No. 2 Texas. They unanimously decide to play the Longhorns.
In Real Life: The week before their final regular-season game, a 71-0 drubbing of Colgate, team members "had expressed a preference for Miami's Orange Bowl," reported the New York Times.
In Reel Life: Throughout his college career, Davis is pummeled by racist players and baited by racist fans. Long after he's tackled, opposing players pile on and are never called for infractions. This reaches its worst point during the 1960 Cotton Bowl, during which there is race-baiting and an enormous halftime brawl.
In Real Life: Sad but true. After the Orangemen beat Texas in the Cotton Bowl, tackle Al Gerlick told the Associated Press, "They were really dirty. We've never met a bunch like this before." Syracuse's black fullback, Art Baker, was more descriptive. "Oh, they were bad. Talk about high standards and scholarship. One of them spit in my face as I carried the ball through the line." The Times also reported that Schwartzwalder was "visibly shaken" but wouldn't comment "on the Negro angle." By 1961, Schwartzwalder had had enough, and was commenting bluntly. "I want my boy to survive," he said. "[The officials] do not stop the opposition from piling up on Davis after the whistle blows." Davis, said Schwartzwalder, was now wearing lineman's pads as a result of the punishment. "They're the biggest pair of pads I've been able to locate," he said.
In Reel Life: After winning the Heisman Trophy, Davis is told that President John F. Kennedy is also in New York and wants to meet him. The two men meet and shake hands.
In Real Life: As unlikely as it seems, it happened pretty much that way. According to a Web site chronicling the history of Elmira, Davis described the meeting this way: "We're standing in the anteroom talking when the doors open and here comes the president. He walked up and introduced himself, 'Hi, I'm Jack Kennedy.' We chatted and the president remarked what an honor it was to win the Heisman Trophy. A picture was taken and we left."
In Reel Life: Davis becomes the first black player to win the Heisman Trophy, college football's highest individual award. He's not only a winner, though. Throughout the film, he's depicted as a kind, considerate, respectful and determined man who is a good friend, and folks recognize it. Kids all love it when he visits Elmira, and he loves the kids. His parents and grandparents are proud of him -- and he's proud of himself (but not too proud). The guy is practically a saint.
In Real Life: Davis' great character was recognized and appreciated in his time. Shortly after he won the Heisman, his hometown held a "Elmira Salutes Ernie Davis Day." Jim Brown and Schwartzwalder were among those who appeared to honor Ernie. JFK sent a congratulatory telegram.
The legend of Ernie Davis lives on. In addition to the adulatory film written about here, an Elmira middle school now bears his name. In 1979, he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. The Browns retired his number, 45, even though Davis never played a down for the team. A statue of Davis stands in his hometown, and Syracuse University unveiled a bronze statue of the Elmira Express when the film premiered there at a special showing in September.
There were a couple problems with the statue: Davis is depicted holding a helmet with a facemask that didn't exist in his day. He also wears shoes sporting the Nike Swoosh. Too bad the first Nike football shoe (named "Nike" and made by Blue Ribbon Sports, which later became the Nike company) wasn't sold until the early '70s. The hidden hand of Nike at work? Nope. "We didn't even know the statue was being erected," a Nike spokesman told the Associated Press.
The statue's sculptor, Bruno Lucchesi, quickly passed the buck. "I was shocked to learn that the material given to me for the helmet and the cleats were mistaken," he said in a statement. "I want to make it clear that I did exactly what I was asked to do and the mistake was not made by me. They told me that they were thrilled with it."
Lucchesi said he had been working from a Davis portrait and equipment given to him by Syracuse, and the statue had been approved by the university before its final bronzing.
Syracuse athletic director Daryl Gross also pled ignorance, saying he first saw the statue only shortly before it was unveiled on Sept. 13. Lucchesi, who Gross called "one of the best (sculptors) in the world" is now editing the piece. Soon Davis' likeness will be back at Syracuse, wearing and carrying gear that's historically accurate.
But wait -- it's a statue, not a replica. Whatever happened to artistic license?
Jeff Merron is a freelance writer, editor and consultant and a former Page 2 staff writer who has written about sports films in "real life" for Page 2 since 2001.