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Filming Actor-Athletes
Getting in the fighting shape necessary to play the team that won Syracuse its first and only national football championship would take training available only from the toughest of coaches and the savviest of trainers.

For this picture at least, Dennis Quaid was content to work from the sidelines. Of tackling the role of leader of the team over teammate, he laughs, "It's a lot easier being the coach than the player. That's what I like about this. You don't have to suit up every day and get your arm sore. You stand on the sidelines and scream.”

Fleder and Davis enlisted football movie veteran ALLAN GRAF with a two-fold assignment: find and field a group of top football players and then, as second-unit director, film them playing the games. "Allan Graf had done two of my favorite football movies, Friday Night Lights and Any Given Sunday,” commends Fleder. "He's got a great eye, so when he shoots it, it's just wonderfully photographed. You're seeing real, gritty, scrappy football.”

Graf, a former University of Southern California player, began his film career posing as a double for infamous Chicago Bear Dick Butkus. Graf notes, "The Express was different from other football movies I've done, because I've never done one in this period. I did a lot of research on blocking technique and had to teach the guys how to block with their shoulders more. They didn't block with their heads in those days, and they weren't allowed to use their hands as much.”

Two other discrepancies the second-unit director/stunt and football coordinator is quick to point out are mass and attitude of that era's teams: "The size of the players was a lot smaller then, and I did tone it down a bit. Our biggest guy is 270.” He adds, "Also, after running the ball, they used to hand it to the refs. There wasn't a lot of rah-rah—no high fives or spiking the ball. Those guys were more polite.”

One of the coups of the production was acquiring an actual Syracuse Orangemen playbook from Ernie's era. Using that document as a blueprint, Fleder and Graf were able to teach, and then film, the exact plays that Davis and his teammates executed during the various game sequences that brought them national acclaim.

As a starting receiver and linebacker for Amherst, Rob Brown had a head start on most others actors on the field. After being cast in The Express, Brown lost approximately 30 pounds to lean up for the role of Ernie Davis. "I prepared thoroughly, both physically and mentally,” says the performer. Both his director and second-unit director were impressed at his level of understanding of the game, which allowed them to work with him in more ways than if a stunt double had to do all his football scenes.

The majority of the gridiron action in The Express focuses on Ernie Davis' years at Syracuse and, in particular, the national championship team of the 1959 season that culminates with the hard-fought Cotton Bowl game against the University of Texas in Dallas. To date, this remains the only national championship football team for Syracuse. In addition to the pressure of the national title, the Cotton Bowl game took on a tense racial challenge between the teams. Syracuse, with its three black players, was the subject of taunts both on and off the field in the emotionally charged game. Re-creating that event—filmed at Northwestern's Ryan Field—accurately took keen collaboration from the entire production team, especially between Coates and Graf.

The production designer recounts, "We had an interesting challenge at Northwestern because they have a Wildcats statue on the field and it was not removable. So, I had to come up with elements that made sense that could cover the statue. Also, the Cotton Bowl sits inside Fair Park, which is the largest collection of art deco buildings west of the Mississippi.”


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