IF YOU'RE not familiar with the tragic story of Ernie Davis—the Syracuse running back who in 1961 became the first black Heisman winner then died of leukemia at age 23—you're not alone. Dennis Quaid (below, right), who plays Orangemen coach Ben Schwartzwalder in the forthcoming film about Davis, The Express, says, "It's this touching story, but I just talked to Eddie George, a Heisman Trophy winner, and even he didn't know the Ernie Davis story." SI visited the suburban Chicago set of The Express, which is due out in 2008, to see how Davis's story is being brought to the big screen.
THE ELMIRA EXPRESS
Producers relied on Robert Gallagher's book Ernie Davis: The Elmira Express, which follows him from his youth in Elmira, N.Y., to Syracuse—former Orangeman Jim Brown helped Schwartzwalder recruit him (below, center)—to his brief time with the Browns, who signed him 18 months before he died. "You can't help but shed a tear, even if you don't like football," says Allan Graf, the football and stunts coordinator.
BACKFIELD IN THE MOTION PICTURE
Actor Rob Brown (Finding Forrester), who plays Davis, found it hard to research the running back's moves. "You can't just YouTube video footage of this guy," he says. "It just isn't there." In addition to the few tapes he got from Syracuse, Rob Brown (below, left) relied on football instinct, which he developed while playing at D-III Amherst—where he never used up his final year of eligibility. (Would he ever go back? Laughs the 23-year-old former wide receiver, "I'm not ruling it out.") To tackle the role of Jim Brown, actor Darrin Dewitt Henson went right to the source. He and Brown became friends while working on the Showtime series Soul Food. "I learned the Jim Brown swagger," Henson says. "On the football field, he walks and talks like he knows he's better. When I walked onto the set with that swagger, [Graf] said, 'Yup, that's Jim Brown.'"
ON THE FIELD
Rob Brown was disappointed to learn that (unlike the hundreds of college, Arena Football League and ex-NFL players cast as extras) he wouldn't be allowed to take any actual hits. Graf—a former USC guard who was a stunt double for Dick Butkus in the 1976 movie Gus, about a field goal-kicking mule—put out a casting call through Chicago papers and radio shows. That led to a combine and, eventually, a roster of extras, including Graf's son Derek, who played center at USC. One athlete didn't make the cut: former Northwestern back Damien Anderson, who was fifth in the 2000 Heisman voting. Graf imagined him as Davis's fullback, but the casting director wanted a real actor. "That killed me," says Graf.
PASSING THE TORCH
As much as Brown was itching to mix it up on the field, Quaid, who broke his collarbone while playing a quarterback in 1988's Everybody's All-American, was happy to stay on the sidelines. "I especially love doing sports movies because it almost always has me outside," says Quaid. "But I really have no desire to strap on those old 1950s pads and cleats. You have to wear those suckers for 14, 15 hours a day. One thing I've learned: It's much easier playing coach."