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THE EXPRESS

About The Production
Blockbuster producer and lifelong football fanatic John Davis was long interested in the story of the first African-American who won the Heisman Trophy and challenged long-held prejudices of Americans in the early 1960s. After Davis read writer Robert Gallagher's book "Ernie Davis: The Elmira Express,” he acquired the rights to the property and began the search for a screenwriter who would do justice to this singular tale of triumph over tragedy.

John Davis was impressed with Gallagher's chronicle of the many struggles and inspirational life of a young man who, though challenged with a speech impediment as a child, did his talking on the ball field to fantastic results. The success and accolades Ernie won at such a young age were achieved by few others…and were legendary to sports aficionados.

His young life reads like a sports legend. While only in high school, Ernie secured four letters in baseball, was named as three-time all-conference basketball player and led his team to a stellar 66-1 record in his final 67 games. He was such a stunning talent that his soon-to-be college coach, Syracuse University's Ben Schwartzwalder, would make approximately 30 visits to Ernie's high school during his junior and senior year to watch the recruit in action. Ernie became the only black player on the Orangemen's 1958 freshman team and, while at SU, earned his stripes as a two-time All- American player. In 1959, he helped lead the team to the first undefeated season in that school's history. In 1961, as a senior at the school, he became the first African-American to with the Heisman Trophy. And that was only the beginning.

"When I was a young boy growing up in Colorado,” recalls John Davis, "I was a fan of a player named Floyd Little who had followed Ernie Davis to Syracuse. We were always aware of this legend, this great player who could have been—Ernie Davis—but who was an extraordinary individual. He generated a tremendous amount of optimism around him.”

But it wasn't just about the sports story. The producer felt the historic backdrop of Ernie's life, the burgeoning civil rights movement, would make for an engaging drama. The more he researched, the more Davis discovered an amazing young man who accomplished, even in a brief lifetime, more than most—an inspirational figure to his country. "He was a black man at a college when there were maybe two other black men playing football at that college,” Davis continues. "It was a time of racial segregation. You go down and play the colleges down in the South and there'd be no black players. It was at a time when we were just learning in this country to accept black men—whether politically or athletically or intellectually—and Ernie was an ambassador of that change.”

Screenwriter Charles Leavitt admits that he was not a huge football fan before beginning this work. Of his interest in penning the screenplay, he says: "What really drew me to The Express was something Jim Brown said about Ernie Davis, and what it was like playing college ball as an African-American in that era, the late '50s. I'm paraphrasing, but Brown said that ‘Black America had adopted two faces: one face was dealing with the world and one face was what we dealt with behind closed doors.'

"It struck me that this was the window through which to tell Ernie's story,” Leavitt adds. "There was this passive institutional racism that existed throughout college sports at the time, even at liberal bastions like Syracuse University. And yet, outside those ivy walls, the civil rights movement was budding. There were winds of change in the air that swept up both Ernie Davis and coach Ben Schwartzwalder.”

When looking for the right filmmaker to helm the drama, John Davis searched for "a director who understood character, emotion and story.” He found that in Gary Fleder, whose previo

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