Ernie Davis and The Express: What Took So Long Hollywood?

Mark HauserCorrespondent IIFebruary 16, 2009

He grew up in poverty as his dad died in a accident when he was young.

He broke of all Jim Brown’s football records at Syracuse and lead the Orangemen to their first and only National Championship in his first season of varsity play.

He became the first black player to win the Heisman Trophy (1961) and then was drafted by the Cleveland Browns to play with an in-his-prime Jim Brown to form what would have the been greatest running backfield in the history of the NFL.

By all accounts he was a great young man, and sadly, he never play a single down in the NFL as he struck down by Leukemia at the age of 23.

It would be hard to make this story up. But, it is, in fact, a compelling true story of a dream unfulfilled. It is the true story of Ernie Davis and it was recently made into a moving Hollywood movie, The Express—just released on DVD. It is a great story of struggle, racism, relationships, extreme talent, triumph, courage, and ultimately, tragedy—ending in his death on May 18, 1963.

Which makes me wonder:  What took Hollywood so long?

Eighteen months after Brian Piccolo died from a tumor, a touching movie, Brian's Song was made about his relationship with his backfield partner and star running back, Gale Sayers of the Chicago Bears.

It was such a popular movie that they remade it in 2001. Two movies about a little known running back and still nothing—until 2008—about a man called the greatest running back who ever lived up to that time, by longtime and highly respected Playboy sports editor, Anson Mount.

Why did such a wonderful story about such a great athlete and man take 45 years to make?  I do not know, but it seems like Hollywood has some explaining to do.  (I do not know if race has anything to do with the delay, but Piccolo is white, while Sayers, Brown and Davis are all black).

If you wondering if I am overstating Davis’ abilities let me give you Brown’s and Davis’ stats while at Syracuse: Brown (1954-56)—361 attempts, 2,091 yards, 5.8 yards a carry, 10 receptions for 100 yards, and 26 touchdowns in 32 games. Davis (1959-61)—360 attempts, 2,386 yards, 6.6 yards a carry (still a Syracuse record), 38 receptions for 392 yards, and 32 touchdowns in 29 games. 

Shortly before he died, Dick Schaap said that he voted for Jim Brown in the 1956 Heisman balloting and after Brown came in only fifth, he was so upset—because he thought Brown was clearly the best player—that he never voted in the Heisman balloting again.

Multi-talented Paul Hornung of a 2-8 Notre Dame team won the 1956 Heisman and is still the only player to win the Heisman while playing for a losing team. It is interesting to note that nowadays Hornung would have no chance of winning the Heisman (rightly or wrongly) being the quarterback of a 2-8 team. 

Whether Brown should have won the Heisman Trophy in 1956 (which would have made him the first black Heisman trophy winner), I do not know, but I do respect Schaap’s opinions about sports. I do know that judging from Davis’ stats and his exciting highlights, sports fans missed out on a lot of breathtaking runs.

At least we finally have the fascinating story of this intriguing young man—even if came a lot later than it should have.