As everyone around here knows -- or will once "The Express" has its world premiere tomorrow night at the Landmark Theater -- Ernie Davis was the Orange's halfback when Syracuse University won the national football championship in 1959. In 1961 he was the first African American and only Orangeman to win the coveted Heisman Trophy, met backstage by President Kennedy for personal congratulations. By late 1963, both were dead, Davis from leukemia and, six months later, JFK assassinated.
Director Gary Fleder filmed some of "The Express" on SU's campus so interest has been high, stoked again by the presence this weekend of cast members, some Davis family and surviving football greats Jim Brown and Floyd Little, whose SU careers bracketed Davis'. There's Hendricks Chapel on-screen and the Maxwell School, though you can see the newer Maxwell II discreetly beyond some foliage. The arched entrance to the old Archbold Stadium, rather grander than I remember it, digitally replaces the Carrier Dome. The Quonset hut that housed the early WAER-FM on the quad back then is nowhere in sight.
But don't settle in for network TV-grade nostalgia. More important forms of authenticity in this uncommonly good film are pitch-perfect. Early on, facing a menacingly inhospitable crowd before the 1960 Cotton Bowl in Texas, Ernie Davis (Rob Brown) recalls himself as a youngster outside Pittsburgh, facing a gang of white toughs on some isolated railroad tracks while collecting bottles. His burlap sack of empties tucked under one arm, dodging and leaping over thugs and through underbrush, the 12-year-old outruns them. The urgency of this first pursuit indelibly colors all that follow on football fields, where skirmishes and games alike are more often systematic muggings of the few Black players than gentlemanly sport.
"The Express" looks beyond the numbers to show "tradition" as what's handed down to talented youngsters. Not a football fan, I couldn't rattle off an admired player's stats the way star-struck Ernie Davis rattles off Jim Brown's when coach Ben Schwartzwalder (Dennis Quaid) enlists the NFL pro and former Orangeman to recruit the high school player -- or the way, a few years later, young Floyd Little recites Davis' stats in the same ritual greeting when Davis comes on a similar errand. But in a lesser film, Schwartzwalder and Davis' complicated, difficult relationship might overshadow the web of care among these men that also includes Davis' grandfather (a wonderful Charles S. Dutton). Davis asks the old man, who introduced him to Brooklyn Dodger great Jackie Robinson via store-window TV, to help him decide about SU. With the mildest glance and smile, Grandfather asks Jim Brown over pie, "Tell me, how is it there -- for men like us?"