Remembering “The Express” Written by Gordon Jackson
First Black Heisman winner excelled in Cotton Bowl classic, as depicted in new movie. A review by Gordon Jackson.
The first Black to win college football’s coveted Heisman Trophy made historical marks in one game played in Dallas nearly a half century ago, with a game performance that witnesses will never forget. Those moments reflected not just a football game, but also the racial climate at the time – something that has now been chronicled in film.
The movie "The Express," which opened in theatres this past weekend, tells the story of Ernie Davis, who made both illustrious and tragic history within a span of a few years. A glorious and volatile slice of his career and life occurred before, during and after the 1960 Cotton Bowl Classic, scenes from which are highlighted in the movie. Other aspects of the game should also be remembered.
The way the game was covered by the local media at the time gives interesting and sometimes conflicting perspectives. A mid-game fight based on a racial slur clouded Davis’ heroics. And an alleged controversy surrounded the post-game awards banquet, where Davis was to pick up his Most Valuable Player trophy.
The film stars emerging actor Rob Brown as Davis and veteran actor Dennis Quaid as Syracuse head football coach Ben Schwartzwalder. Darrin Dewitt Henson, best known as Lem in the "Soul Food" television series, plays the legendary Jim Brown and Charles Dutton plays "Pops" Davis, Ernie’s grandfather. The movie chronicles most of Davis’s life, from his upbringing in west Pennsylvania to his Heisman Trophy award. That includes the January 1, 1960 Cotton Bowl game between Davis’s undefeated Syracuse Orangemen and the Southwest Conference champion Texas Longhorns.
Dallas Morning News sportswriter Bill Rives then wrote: "The 1960 Cotton Bowl game was one of the most exciting and controversial of the long list of those classic contests. We sincerely hope that the ruffled feelings which exploded between the teams will not leave any scars."
Close to 75,000 fans saw Davis score 16 of Syracuse’s 23 points. On the second play from scrimmage, he took a short pass and scampered 87 yards for a touchdown. He went on to score another touchdown and score two-point conversions for both scores.
Aside from his 87-yard scoring pass play, Davis rushed for 57 yards on 8 carries. Also playing defense, he intercepted a pass and made four tackles. He was easily named the game’s Most Valuable Player.
Syracuse’s 23-14 victory over the Longhorns gave the team their first and still only national college football championship. Many of those interviewed back then called the game one of the best Cotton Bowl games to that date.
"I think it’s the greatest show we’ve ever had," said then Cotton Bowl board chair Robert B. Cullum told The Dallas Times Herald. "It had more spirit, not only among the players, but among the fans than any previous game."
Most however, chose to downplay, or even ignore, Davis’s individual performance.
"I’ve seen better individual performances than those of Ernie Davis and the others, but Syracuse had as much balance as anyone we’ve had here," said Ed Fite, the United Press International sports editor.
Varying perspectives were given on the fight that broke out between players just before halftime. The Dallas Times Herald’s Jan. 2, 1960 article reads: "And suddenly Syracuse’s John Brown, a 220-pound Negro tackle, took quick offense at a remark by Texas’ towering Larry Stephens. So Brown took a swing in Stephens’ general direction.
"Texas’s Babe Dreymala, looking like Tom Thumb Among the Amazons, jumped in the big middle, and both benches quickly emptied."
The San Antonio Express-News reported in an recent article: "According to author Lou Maysel, in his definitive UT football history "Here Come the Texas Longhorns," UT lineman Larry Stephens – "possibly the most even-tempered player on the Texas team" – then said: "Keep your Black a** (Maysel, in 1970, used ‘bleep’) out of it."
"Brown swung at Stephens. Other players threw punches. Both benches at least partially emptied.
"After the game, Al Baker, a Black fullback for Syracuse, said: "Oh, they were bad. One of them spit in my face as I carried the ball through the line."
The Times Herald, under the headline, "Syracuse Anger Lingers," had Brown quoted as stating: "No kidding. You come down here hearing about the fine sportsmanship and then something like this happens. But I guess we were all excited. I’m sure Darryl Stephens didn’t mean what he said to me."
There are conflicting accounts as to what exactly happened in regards to the post-game awards banquet. Several reports stated that Davis was told by Cotton Bowl officials that he would have to leave the banquet as soon as he got his MVP trophy, causing the entire predominantly white Syracuse team to boycott the dinner.
However, Longhorn player Jack Collins, one of the defensive players who covered Davis on his 87-yard touchdown play, told the Dallas Morning News three years later: "And I remember he made a real impression with everyone that night at the banquet. When he got his trophy for being the outstanding player, he was very humble about it and said how sorry he was there had been trouble."
Davis maintained his stellar form through his senior year in 1961, when he averaged 7.8 yards per carry, rushed for 877 yards, which included rushing for 100 yards in six of nine games. He was awarded the prestigious Heisman Trophy, the first African American to win the award.
High hopes to see Davis excel in the National Football league scaled even higher after he was picked No. 1 by the Washington Redskins in the 1962 Draft, but then was immediately traded to the Cleveland Browns. Football fans were eager to see Davis run in the same backfield alongside the great Jim Brown, who preceded Davis at Syracuse. Davis had also proudly worn Brown’s college jersey number, 44.
Davis would never play another down again. In the summer of 1962, he was diagnosed with acute monocytic leukemia, then an incurable disease. His health deteriorated in spite of several medical treatments. Davis died May 18, 1963, at the age of 23.
While Davis’s Cotton Bowl performance was downplayed by the media during game-time coverage, the Morning News underscored it in an article printed on May 19, 1963, one day after Davis’ death:
"Ernie Davis left a fine, indelible memory on the Cotton Bowl and Dallas – one that will long outlive bitter memories of a bitter football game."
However the movie or local press depicts such highlighted accounts of Davis today, he showed on that day of the Cotton Bowl, and throughout his brief life, the best way to overcome racial adversity is through unadulterated excellence mixed with dignity and class.
The day he almost single-handedly beat the Longhorns in the 1960 Cotton Bowl, overcoming blatant racial obstacles, should no longer be downplayed or ever forgotten.