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.