Teammates say 'The Express' changes history

Ernie Davis was only weeks from dying the last time Dick Easterly saw his Heisman Trophy-winning teammate.

It was 1963 at Syracuse University's alumni football game, where teammates celebrated the Orangemen's 1959 national championship by strapping on helmets again. Davis was the team's juggernaut running back, later the first African-American ever to win the Heisman Trophy.

Soon after being drafted No. 1 overall by the Cleveland Browns, Davis was diagnosed with leukemia. He wore street clothes at the alumni game, serving as an honorary coach.

Easterly, now 69 and living in Tampa, remembered Davis raring to play football again.

"He looked great, standing on the sidelines smiling and laughing," Easterly said. "He really thought that he was going to make it back."

Davis, 23, died the next month in a Cleveland hospital.

All these years later, Easterly still recalls his teammate not only for his football prowess, but also for the warm, comical personality that made him an all-star off the field. Qualities missing from Davis' portrayal in The Express, opening Friday in theaters.

Davis' accomplishments and abbreviated life inspire the new movie, which Easterly saw at an Orangemen reunion recently. He later joined me and teammate Patrick Whelan, 71, of Safety Harbor, at a Tampa screening.

Both men believe Davis' story deserves telling, as they think teammates and journalists have done well in books. Neither believes The Express captures his personality, or accurately portrays his relationships with head coach Ben Schwartzwalder and teammates. They claim key events on screen never occurred, like the team being showered with garbage and racial epithets during a game at West Virginia.

Truth is sometimes rearranged in screen biographies, when facts aren't dramatic enough for the filmmaker's vision. Director Gary Fleder uses Davis' football career to illustrate racial intolerance that Easterly and Whelan claim seldom existed for him.

"What the director tried to accomplish is showing the conditions of those times," Easterly said. "A lot of things in the movie didn't happen at that time at Syracuse but did happen in the country.

"I see a lot of things that never were done to Ernie but maybe happened to (Syracuse great) Jim Brown (in the 1950s). Hell, the movie's more about him than Ernie. And they made Ben look like a racist, to me."

In The Express, Schwartzwalder (Dennis Quaid) is initially depicted as reluctant to recruit Davis because he's "too old to butt heads with another Jim Brown," one of the first black athletes to openly defy American racism.

Later, Schwartzwalder chides Davis (Rob Brown) for chatting with a white cheerleader. He overlooks bigoted actions toward Davis by a teammate (a fabrication, according to Easterly and Whelan), and doesn't support racial equality until Syracuse wins the Cotton Bowl and his black players — including Davis, the game's MVP — are banned from the segregated awards dinner.

Brown portrays Davis as an intense, shy person moved to anger when Schwartzwalder deflects any discriminatory acts. During the West Virginia fracas, Davis snaps at his coach: "Maybe, just maybe, the rules down here are your rules, too."

Easterly scoffs at that dramatic license: "He would never in a million years talk to Ben Schwartzwalder like that," said Easterly, who played in the Canadian Football League before becoming a financial planner. "Nor would Ben ever talk to Ernie like that."

Whelan, a former Secret Service agent whose football career as a center was plagued by injuries, agreed: "From the day that Ernie Davis came on campus, they were like father and son."

The teammates also agreed that Brown's portrayal misses Davis' essence.

"You knew by looking at him that he would be a terrific player," Whelan said. "More important than that was Ernie's demeanor, how he treated people.

"He was like a magnet to good things, always; polite, smart, a real personality. Ernie knew everybody's name and went out of his way to say hello. He was a real comedian, too."

Easterly and Whelan cited the 1960 Cotton Bowl victory over Texas in Dallas — re-created in the movie — as the team's worst confrontation with racism. Fleder's movie makes an on-field brawl nastier than they recall, altering the team's reaction when Davis was informed by Cotton Bowl officials that he would have to leave the dinner after accepting his MVP trophy.

"The whole team told them to stick it," Easterly said. "The movie shows us going to some bar to celebrate. Actually we went to the Dallas Athletic Club."

There's another good story The Express overlooks.

"The Texas ballplayers came in and found out we could get anything we wanted so they used our names," Easterly said. "We get back to Syracuse and we're told the bar tab is $195. That's a fortune today.

"Turns out the Texas players weren't all that dumb; they were signing our names, getting boxes of cigars and drinks."

Whelan and Easterly laugh at such anecdotes as if they happened yesterday. They know that no movie could get everything in, or get it completely right. Memories of Davis and a dream season for Syracuse are too fond to fade. Not even a well-intended but misguided movie can change that.

"It's not important to people who weren't there," Easterly said. "But we're sitting (at the Syracuse premiere) watching this thing, saying: 'Jeez, where did they get that from?' "

Steve Persall can be reached at persall@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs.tampabay.com/movies.

Review

The Express

Times film critic Steve Persall's review of the movie will appear in Weekend on Thursday.

Teammates say 'The Express' changes history 10/03/08 [Last modified: Friday, October 3, 2008 2:35pm]

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