Friday, October 10, 2008

'Express' Yourself-- The Ernie Davis Story

For eleven years of my life I lived an hour and a bit from Cleveland, and came to know a lot of wonderful folks who were die-hard Browns fans. There was a poignancy to that loyalty, much like the loyalty to the Cubs. You learn something about unconditional love when you meet these folks. One of my favorite friends from Cleveland is Dr. William Myers. Bill is not only a fine NT professor at Ashland Seminary, he has been pastor at New Mount Zion Baptist Church in Cleveland as well. When he was a young man, he made a little money by being one of the many workers in chilly Cleveland stadium (dubbed affectionally the mistake by the lake) selling popcorn, peanuts and the like. Doing this in the early 60s he saw some of Jim Brown's career, and observed the tragic demise of Ernie Davis who died of leukemia in 1963 before he had even been able to actually play for the Browns. But it is not always the case that how a person's life ends most defines or reveals the person. Ernie Davis was in many ways as much of a pioneer as Jackie Robinson or Jim Brown. He was the first African American to win the Heisman in 1962 after a stellar career at Syracuse. But there is so much more to his story.

I am most certainly a sports fan, and whilst baseball has been blessed with quite a number of wonderful portrayals on the silver screen, there are not that many classic football movies, and even fewer which deal with a major social issue like racism. Thus I suspect that this movie will in some ways be compared to Cuba Gooding's finest hour playing 'Radio' in another football film that deals with racism. Racism is such an ugly scar on the American landscape, made even uglier when, as sometimes is the case, it has been justified on the basis of the Bible. There is a moment in 'The Express' when one white Texas football player expresses precisely this oxymoronic point of view saying 'aren't you ashamed as a white Christian to be playing with spooks?' and is rebuffed by the reply of the white player for Syracuse, with 'nope I'm Jewish'. But fortunately there is another face of Christianity in this movie as well. Scenes like this always produce a viseral reaction in me, as I grew up in the racist south and I saw its sorry and ugly face and how it scarred both those who did the hating and those who they despised.

The Ernie Davis story encompasses his short twenty three years of life, ending in 1963. Not long before he died he had won the Heisman, and met JFK who wanted to congratulate him for his courage in standing up against the bigotry. And those scenes provide the climax of this movie, but do not reveal its true arc.

Though it seems hard to believe, Dennis Quaid, who is excellent in this film as coach Ben Swartzwalder (who coached Jim Brown, Ernie Davis and Floyd Little in succession, and died in 1993) has never played a role quite like this before. He is first rate in this, and has the coach's withering stare and grimace down to a fine art.

Caught in the age of transition, Swartzwalder tried to balance keeping his black players from getting harmed, and at the same time allowing them to grow and play to their full potential. It was a fine line to walk, and we see it so clearly in the January 1960 Cotton Bowl where Syracuse played Texas, and the black players took a beating, literally, from the Texas boys who despised them, while the referees turned a blind eye to the matter. Undaunted Ernie Davis and his mates won that game and the National Championship with an undefeated season, thanks largely to the Express. Rob Brown does a masterful job of playing Ernie Davis as a teen and young man growing up in Uniontown Pa. and then Elmira N.Y.

But what may get overlooked in this PG rated film that clocks in at two hours is the actual Christian elements in it. The film begins with Ernie's grandfather asking him to read the Scripture for the night, which turns out to be Ernie's life verse that he lived by---1 Cor. 15.10-- "for by the grace of God, I am what I am, and his grace to me was not in vain. No, I worked harder than them all, yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me." Ernie grew up in a coal town in the 50s, and lost his Christian grandfather to an early grave from being in the mines too long, near Uniontown. His brother tried to get him involved in nascent days in the civil rights movement, by taking him to a rally at the local black church, and there is a brief appearance of Martin Luther King in the film counciling non-violent resistance to racism. It was a motto that Ernie lived by in everyday life, but he took out his frustrations on the field by running over more than one would be tackler.

Ernie Davis was that rarest of backs-- he had the speed and jukes of a Reggie Bush, he had the power running of a Jim Brown, and he had the moxie and reversal of field capacity of Sweetness, Walter Payton. He ran back kickoffs, played defensive back, could throw the ball, and in general was a one man wrecking crew. All this you see in the film, and it makes his untimely demise all the more stunning. Nothing more reveals our mortality than to see the felling of an enormously gifted athlete in the prime of life by some dread disease or accident.

The film also highlights the role one's faith plays in crisis when the odds are against you. It brought back some pretty vivid memories when I saw the coach lead the whole Syracuse football team in the Lord's Prayer before they played the Cotton Bowl game. Like any good film, the character's in this movie have some complexity, and we see the change of heart in one of the more racist white players for Syracuse. We also see the courage of Ernie Davis to go and apologize to his coach for arguing with him about playing time. The measure of a man is often best seen in how he responds to his mistakes, and whether he owns up to them.

This film is a timely one in various ways, because once again it raises the proper question, has America, or at least most Americans finally gotten beyond its racism? Of course the answer is, not as much as it should have, but this film does remind us how much progress has been made since the 50s. Many people will see this election as a referendum on racism in America. Whether that is fair or not, this film reminds us that true Christians do not accept such prejudices, not least because in Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, no male and female (Gal. 3.28) as Paul puts it. Or as Ernie reminds us at the beginning of the film--- all of us are what we are by the grace of God, and by hard work as well, as the man from Tarsus put it. Ernie Davis reveals that both these things said in 1 Cor. 15.10 are true.


jwmeyer said...

Hi Ben,
Great write up. Makes me want to see this film all the more. Thought I'd let you know about a typo.
no make and female (Gal. 3.28)
God Bless,

Brendt said...

Sigh. I have to register the opposite of Jim -- this review was very good, but it served as a warning not to waste $10.

The scene with the white Texas "Christian" and the white Ohio Jew, contrasted with the scenes that do show real Christian faith in Ernie's family, pander to the same tired Hollywood cliche that we've heard for many years: black Christians are permitted to be serious about their faith, but white Christians (what few exist) are a bunch of hypocrites.

In actuality, this is a very racist viewpoint. Religion is relegated to the domain of the African-American, something quaint that we allow him to engage in, the crutch that we allow him to use. Ironic that a movie about quashing racism would be so undeniably racist.

Yeah, America has come a long way toward abolishing racism. Maybe one day, Hollywood -- that bastion of progressive thinking -- will catch up with the rest of us.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Many have used the "race card" in the case of our national security issues. Today, because of terrorists that happen to be of a certain race, all Arabs are scutinized. If I were in their shoes and I valued America's freedom more than my "pride" of being suspected, then I think I would not be resentful of a little more scruntiny when it came to security...This type of discrimination is really not about racism, as when all blacks without doing anything were labelled as inferior. This is about being "wise" and not fool hearty...
So, when it comes to grace, and the Scripture you quoted about working more diligently, then, it is about doing all one can do to make sure that the nation's interest is valued, and not just one's "race".

Ben Witherington said...

Brendt I'm sorry but the neglect of showing more white Christians in films is certainly not inherently racist. Indeed, Walden Media has looked for some time for viable stories about such persons (e.g. perhaps you missed the recent movie 'Amazing Grace' that they did, about William Wilberforce).

The truth of the matter is that white Christians over the past century plus in America have much to answer for in regard to racism (either its promotion, or the neglect of renouncing and counteracting it), and one passing remark in this film does not constitute a stereotype. I heard such remarks regularly growing up.

So, let's try not to stereotype all of Hollywood either.


Brendt said...

Let's not confuse stereotypes and patterns. Maybe my closing statement about Hollywood was a bit broad-brushed, but not nearly so as you seem to make it to be.

Perhaps you didn't cite other characters, but I come away with the racist white Christian and the true-to-his-faith black man, with the racist being chided by someone of a different faith. And that fits a pattern that far too many movies espouse.

I realize that it's only one scene, but it fits the pattern, which is more offensive in its overuse and tiredness than it is in its content.

Maybe the rest of the movie makes up for it. But I'm not gambling $10 to find out. I'll wait for the DVD.

And no, I didn't miss Amazing Grace -- fantastic movie. But you can't possibly be claiming that its portrayal of white Christians is the norm.

I would revise your statement, too. The truth of the matter is that white people of all faiths (and no faith whatsoever) over the past century plus in America have much to answer for in regard to racism. However, that's generally not the portrayal given.

Ben Witherington said...

Well Brendt I'll let you see the movie and decide. The one line I mentioned is a tiny side bar, and you could almost miss it, as it is in the middle of a football play. So, no it does not in any way present a major theme in the movie.


Brendt said...

Well, that's good to know.

On an unrelated note, my initials are BWW, so I initial stuff as BW2 (only with the 2 as superscript).

Kurt said...

Ben, I just stumbled onto your blog. Good stuff. :)

Matthew D. Montonini said...


I am truly looking forward to seeing this film. I have been a Browns fan all my adult life, and although Jim Brown, Ernie Davis and Leroy Kelly were all before my time, I am keenly aware of their place in Cleveland Browns' history.

BTW- I had Dr. Myers for a couple of courses in my time at Ashland--you're correct, he is a great guy and scholar. I'll have to ask him about his recollections of the 64' Browns when I see him.

Thanks for your insights on the film.



Allan R. Bevere said...


Thanks for your review. I am going to take both of my sons to see the movie.

As a former coach of boys and girls softball, I believe that sports has much to teach our young people about life. I quit coaching several years ago, when I finally got tired of other coaches and parents, who obviously believed that winning was so important that it did not matter who was stepped on in the process.

But I want my sons to see this movie in order to understand the significance of courage and hard work, and, at the same time, the sad history of racism that still is at work in our society.

I was too young to remember Ernie Davis, but I remember my father telling me about him as he was also talking about Jim Brown and Leroy Kelly.

This is a history that needs to be told. It is good stuff.

Thanks for highlighting it.

Lance said...

My wife and I saw this movie on opening night and loved it!

We especially enjoyed the scene where young Ernie reads from 1 Cor. 15 (By the grace of God, I am what I am.)

It is a very poetic scene, but I must add that I read that this was not factual---that he did have a stuttering problem and that he read out loud to help remedy it, but that there is no evidence that he read from the Bible, but from school books and sports books (see story here:

Nonetheless, it's a good film with a great message.

sh said...

Journalists and film critics noted that a scene of "racist vitriol" involving the October 24, 1959 game between Syracuse and West Virginia University, was fictitious and, as Film Journal International critic Frank Lovece noted, "veers remarkably toward outright slander". That game is "falsely shown as taking place at WVU's Mountaineer Field" in Morgantown, West Virginia, "rather than at Syracuse's own Archbold Stadium", the Orangemen's home field in New York state.

Additionally, Lovece found, "Aside from the fact that the game didn't even take place there, Schwartzwalder had earlier led West Virginia high-school teams to state championships, and was a beloved and respected figure with devoted fans there who wouldn't have given his teams any lip — so much so that on his death in 1993, WVU even instituted the Ben Schwartzwalder Trophy".[6] Syracuse quarterback Dick Easterly, who played with Davis in Morgantown the following year, on October 22, 1960, after the events of the Cotton Bowl game against the University of Texas, recalled no such events and said, "I apologize to the people of West Virginia because that did not happen. I don't blame people in West Virginia for being disturbed. The scene is completely fictitious".

Syracuse center Patrick Whelan, a Davis teammate, said of the movie's inaccuracies, "[W]e’re sitting watching this thing, saying, 'Jeez, where did they get that from?'".

I have a good friend from West Virginia who is very offended at the film for its portrayal of WV fans.