Last night while my wife was watching the Inaugural Balls on television, I watched The Express just out on DVD. I thought it was an appropriate way to honor the holiday and the Inauguration. The Express is about Ernie Davis who starred at halfback at Syracuse University around 1960. He followed Jim Brown who helped recruit him from Elmira Free Academy in Elmira, NY (my old stomping grounds). In turn, Davis helped recruit Floyd Little who played for the Denver Broncos for almost ten years after college. For 12 years Syracuse had a dominant football program due largely to these talented running backs. Of course, they were all Black at a time when many college programs would not recruit Black athletes. The film noted that Ernie Davis was only one of about 40 Black students on the SU campus at the time. When they traveled to play in places like West Virginia and Texas, the atmosphere was poisoned by racial hatred. In Davis' sophomore year (at that time the NCAA had a rule prohibiting freshmen from playing on the varsity), SU went to the national championship game against Texas. Football games are often played in hostile environments but at halftime of this game the SU coach said there was much more going on in this game than the usual rivalries among schools. There was a deep and dangerous racial animosity exhibited by players, coaches and fans. The three Black players on the SU squad were not allowed to stay in the team hotel. Ernie Davis who won the award for player of the game was not even allowed at the country club which hosted the after game award ceremony. Two years later after Davis's senior year he was awarded the Heisman Trophy as the best college football player in the nation. He was the first Black player to win that prestigious award. After college Davis was drafted by the Cleveland Browns of the NFL. In a dream backfield he was to be teamed with the great Jim Brown. But, before he ever played a game he was diagnosed with leukemia and died at 23. His jersey was retired by the Browns.
Davis was raised in a strong Christian environment. His life was a story of courage both on and off the field. Most of all, as I watched the film, I thought of how far we have come in the last 50 years. People like Davis, Jackie Robinson in baseball (broke into the big leagues in 1949) , and Jim Brown and Dr. Martin Luther King paved the way for what we witnessed on Tuesday, January 20 - the Inauguration of President Obama. It was not easy paving that way. The Express tells one story among many which could be told about the sacrifices and courage that led to that historic day this week.