Posted on January 20, 2009 at 6:00 pm
When a real-life story combines athletic excellence and civil rights breakthroughs, it has more than enough heart and drama to be good movie material. Ernie Davis was a combination of heart and pure talent who came along at just the right time to do what his predecessor on the Syracuse football team could not. Jim Brown could break records, but he could not win college football’s highest honor, the Heisman trophy. In that volatile era, a player needed to be more than talented to win that prize. He needed to qualify as “a credit to his race,” determined enough to break through color barriers but not angry enough to scare anyone. Ernie Davis was that player.
He had all the talent anyone could dream of. He could run so fast and dodge so gracefully that enormous angry linebackers seemed to dissolve into air as he ran by. He had one of those talents so rare that he could dissolve ignorance and bigotry as well. One force powerful enough to overcome prejudice is competition. Everyone wanted to have him on their side. Syracuse coach Ben Schwartzwalder (Dennis Quaid) is not eager to bring on a black player, not just because of discomfort with non-whites but because of bad experiences with Jim Brown (Darrin Dewitt Henson), an angry and impatient superstar. But Brown helps persuade Davis to come to Syracuse. And Schwartzwalder shows that when it comes to football, the only colors that matter are those on the uniforms.
Rob Brown of Finding Forrester shows us Davis’ essential decency and dedication. He wants to win for his team, but he also wants to win for his people. If he is a little too glowingly perfect, a little too heroic, it adds to the mythic feeling of the story. And it is balanced by Quaid’s cranky Schwartzwalder and the challenges of an era before the Civil Rights Act, when a member of the team could win the Most Valuable Player award but not be permitted to attend the dinner. It is also a welcome reminder of an era when athletes were role models because of the way they behaved off the field as well as on.