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Casting The Film
Casting The Express was no easy task for director Fleder and producer Davis. They would need to find an actor who could both embody the indomitable spirit of Ernie Davis and perform as a stellar athlete. Fleder remembers: "About a year and a half before I made the film, I had this general meeting with an actor named Rob Brown, who I'd seen in Finding Forrester. He was this big, strapping, handsome kid, but also had an uncanny resemblance to Ernie Davis…very similar face, with these eyes that looked right through you. I immediately connected him to Ernie.”

When the project came about, Fleder brought in Brown, a performer who had both solid acting and sports experience. "He had that glow,” the director offers, "but here's the great thing about Rob. He's a football player. He played Division III ball at Amherst and is a great athlete. We actually put him on the field, had him run around and videotaped him. It was extraordinary. He's got that grace.”

When he accepted the role, Brown conducted his own extensive research into the life of Ernie Davis. "Everybody was fairly consistent in describing how saintly he was,” he says. "Usually it's that kind of fairy tale, then somewhere in the research you find that it's different. That didn't happen.”

Brown was particularly moved by the piece in Leavitt's screenplay in which the Syracuse team, while traveling by bus on its way to the Cotton Bowl, stops near Dallas at a gas station. Because Ernie Davis grew up in the Northeast, his experiences with racism were different than the "separate but equal” laws of the South. But football led him to several Southern campuses, opening his eyes to what was going on in the rest of the country. "That's pretty much Ernie's staunch realization of Jim Crow,” offers Brown of the scene. "There are two water fountains—one for whites and the other for blacks. For Ernie to go down South and see something so blatant, so in his face…it's a point where he had to deal with it.”

For the part of Ernie's powerful mentor Coach Schwartzwalder, the filmmakers would look to an actor who had a number of dramatic sports films on his resume, Dennis Quaid. The performer's extensive work in this genre includes seminal movies such as Everybody's All-American, Any Given Sunday, Tough Enough and The Rookie.

Producer Davis appreciated that Quaid could embody Schwartzwalder, a coach he believes "loved sports, and really understood football and coaches.” Davis adds, "In this movie, we have a coach who is a great teacher and a player who needs to be taught…a player who is bound for greatness and a coach who is almost there himself. With that chemistry, Dennis got it. He just instinctually understands these kinds of characters.” Schwartzwalder, a veteran, trained and treated his team like a military unit.

Despite nurturing three All-American black football players on his teams, he was not necessarily a poster child for civil rights. Quaid did extensive research into the life of Schwartzwalder when he accepted the part. Of his on-screen counterpart, he notes: "I would call him a man of his times. This wasn't the Deep South; it was New York, and all that Ben really cared about happened on that football field.”

Still, the prejudices Ernie Davis faced were not unfamiliar territory to Houston native Quaid. He recalls: "I remember, well into the '60s, the city had ‘white' and what they called ‘colored' bathrooms and drinking fountains. Black people had to sit in the balcony at theaters, had their own concession stand; everything was separated.” Chosen as Ernie's roommate and fellow player Jack Buckley was Omar Benson Miller, also seen this season in Spike Lee's World War II drama Miracle at St. Anna.

Buckley helps Davis acclimate to the culture at SU and navigate the unspoken rules of the day. Of their relationship, Miller of

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