Courage on the field

“He was an outstanding young man of great character who served—and my hope is, will continue to serve—as an inspiration to the young people of this country.”

…John F. Kennedy on Ernie Davis

The movie, The Express, came out this weekend. It’s the story of Ernie Davis, the young African-American football standout whose conviction, character and performance won him the coveted Heisman Trophy, given each year to the most outstanding college athlete. In the case of Davis, he was the first African-American to receive it.

The Express is a vivid and sometimes painful reminder of America in the late 1950s and how a man, determined to be the best football player he could be, helped our country move past its long-held views of people of color.

Davis was born in 1939 and was raised in poverty in Pennsylvanian coal mining country by his grandparents. At the age of 12, he was reunited with his mother and new stepfather. They moved to Elmira, New York where he became the star player on his high school team—a fact that did not go unnoticed by more than 50 college teams who offered him scholarships, something unheard of among Black players at the time. He chose Syracuse and went on to help the school achieve national status including winning the Cotton Bowl against the University of Texas in 1959.

As a movie, The Express is probably “just okay.” The acting is a bit stilted and some of the casting of the players is inconsistent. But as a story of determination and quietly (and sometimes not so quietly) standing for the fair treatment of everyone, it’s unmatched and inspiring. As I watched the movie, in scenes of anger and hatred so strong that I winced at times, I couldn’t help but think about my biases, subtle and not-so, and wonder how they cloud what I see and how I think about others.

The Express stars Dennis Quaid as coach Ben Schwartzwalder and Rob Brown as Davis.

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