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‘The Express’ Is Right On Time
“From the time I started in sports, I was always the player who got the limelight, who had the nice stories written about him; all this I gained merely by doing what I liked to do most.”
–Ernie Davis, the first African – American to win the Heisman Award; from an article entitled “I’m Not Unlucky” in the Saturday Evening Post, March 30, 1963 (with Bob August).PHILADELPHIA — It has long been something most people take for granted, especially in the era of self-promotion and media commotion; to be able to translate their talents into real-world affectation, benefiting not only themselves, but mankind as well.
If you were a Black person living in 1950s America, those opportunities to do something you loved and prosper from it were few and far between; and as prior generations of Black people sought to channel frustration into realization, waiting for that one source which could not only burn, but illuminate.
In 1959, Syracuse University would produce such a source in Ernie Davis.The life of tailback Ernie Davis is put on display in a new film, “The Express,” to be released nationwide today. As the first African-American to receive college football’s highest honor, the Heisman Trophy, Davis, who was nicknamed “the Elmira Express” for his community in Elmira, New York, would do the thing he loved; while transforming into a conduit for the aspirations of civility and humanity for Black people during the Civil Rights era.
As Herculean a task as Davis had thrust upon him, there was one who had previously blazed a trail for him. The great Jim Brown, first to wear the now mythic No. 44 for the Orangemen of Syracuse, revealed that Davis was made of the right stuff. “Ernie Davis was a quiet storm of courage and self-awareness,” assesses Brown. On the field, he was everything you could want in a talent – big, quick and powerful.
“But off the field, with the eyes of the world on him, he stared perception in the face with his reality of knowing who he was and knowing what he did and what it meant to everyone at that time.
“You have to remember cats like Davis saw the big picture; they didn’t come out of school with no degree and little life experience. If anything, Syracuse kept its word in guaranteeing an education to us.
“Out of the Black men who would go on to play professional ball in that era, over 90 per cent of these men had their degrees — real degrees — and knew there were more things than football we had to contend with.”
Syracuse head football coach Ben Schwartzwalder was one of those things; a hard, focused man who was tough but fair – and Davis’ enduring spirit endeared himself to Schwartzwalder, helping him and the program to become one of the strongest in the country during a time resistant to change and more sensitive to transition.Davis’ story is a lightning rod for the growing civil rights movement that would take the country to task in the 1960s. The covert and overt racism Davis would run over around and through would change the face of college athletics; but Davis, unlike many after him, didn’t have the luxury of opting out of the challenge and ignoring the unspoken calling for commercial gain.
Brown cites this as the quintessential difference between then and now. “You take a Michael Jordan,” pauses Brown,”…and all you can really say about him is that he was a great basketball player — but that’s all. Jordan is no hero to me.
“There were cats like Jordan back in our time, too – and whatever motivations sparked them to do what they did was just something unsaid; but we knew (who they were), and they were far in the minority in our overall approach of what we collectively had to do.
“Ernie Davis never gave his manhood up – and still managed to sign what was at that time the largest pro contract at the end of his college career.
“There is no question Davis would’ve been a great pro player; that he never got the chance to fulfill it pales in comparison to the commitment he made in earning it and making things better for those who came after him,” Brown said.
In addition to being the first Black player to be awarded the Heisman, Davis would become the first Black player to be selected as first overall in any NFL draft in 1962.
When his rights were traded from the Washington Redskins and their racist owner George Preston Marshall (in part because Davis refused to play for him), Cleveland Browns owner Art Modell laid the foundation for a dream backfield of Brown and Davis.Although leukemia would end Davis’ life at age 23, the Browns retired No. 45 in honor of him.
The “one who came after” Davis at Syracuse was Floyd Little, who, compared to Brown and the 6-foot-2, 220-pound Davis, was the smallest of the titanic triumvirate (5-feet-10, 190) and Little still smiles in recalling the day he committed to Syracuse.
“We were all at home, watching ‘The Beverly Hillbillies,’” laughs Little. The door was answered and here’s Ernie and Ben Schwartzwalder. Ernie had on this camel hair coat and this huge smile on his face as he said hello and my sisters are all goo-goo eyed, staring holes through him.
“We then went to dinner and what I remember most was the university promising that they would ensure me that if I played for Syracuse, I would leave with an education and something else besides Saturday afternoons in the fall – and they kept their word.”
While Little may have been the runt of the litter, his heart was huge. As the sixth player in the AFL-NFL common draft in 1967 after an All-American career as an Orangeman, he singlehandedly saved the Denver Broncos with his efforts at Mile High Stadium.
In Denver, Little was merely “The Franchise” – but suggests Davis was of even greater stature. “I would have to say this movie about Ernie has been in the works for over 40 years. In terms of scope and its effect on our society, it has to rank right up there with Jackie Robinson’s story in baseball.”
What is clear about “The Express” is this is not a football movie, a sentiment Little echoes. “This is a story of a young man who knew he was sick; who should’ve had everything to look forward to after overcoming so much refusing to dwell on ‘what if’ or ‘why me?’ – and doing it with a desire to live and class that I sincerely hope will give some of these young men out here pause to start thinking again.”
I see “The Express” as an “Old School” primer in knowing what to do and how to do it; and as these great men have stated, will hopefully serve as a wakeup call to many athletes and non – athletes to reconsider the unspoken covenant made between those who came before and the expectations in holding down those values intrinsic to all cultures.
This flick is worth more than a bucket of popcorn, and seems to be pulling into the station of self – awareness – right on time.