Dennis Quaid – The Express

Dennis Quaid – The Express

By Beth Accomando

Dennis Quaid starred as football players in films like Any Given Sunday and Everybody’s All American. But for The Express he hangs up his cleats to take on the role of coach.

“It’s easier in some ways because you don’t have to take the hits,” Quaid tells me during an interview at the U.S. Grant Hotel, “Let the young men do the hitting.”

Which is precisely what he does in The Express, the story of Ernie “The Elmira Express” Davis. Davis had a brief, brilliant career at Syracuse University in the late fifties and early sixties, and became the first African
American to win the Heisman Trophy. Quaid plays Ben Schwartzwalder, Syracuse University’s head coach.


He says, “I feel a responsibility when I play a real person to try capture that person’s spirit and to play them honestly not idealistically.”

That means showing how tough he was as a coach and how he struggled with racial issues of the times. Another player Schwartzwalder coached was Jim Brown. Quaid says he was fortunate to be friends with Brown who gave him insights into Schwartzwalder’s character:


“He said they butted heads quite a bit but also how much respect he had for the man. He made him a better football player. He was also a person who shaped character.”

Because of the social climate of the times, Quaid says the film is more than just a football movie.


“It also looks at racism as it existed in late fifties and early sixties and that speaks to where we are today and how far we have come and how far we still need to go. But I think we look back honestly. At the end of film
Ernie picks up bottle and says, ‘See this bottle? It doesn’t have a label. I didn’t come here to be the best black running back. I came here to be the best running back.’ And that’s eventually where we’re all heading it’s just
a matter of how long.”

At the game played in Texas, Schwartzwalder forbids Davis from taking the ball into the end zone for fear it would cause a riot.


“That incident actually happened,” Quaid says, “Ben was thinking of his team. There was real fear that it would spark a riot and people would get hurt. But at the same time that doesn’t make it right. It’s been interesting at screenings, people under 45 who weren’t around then, they’re shocked that that’s the way it actually used to be.


“I grew up in Houston in the late fifties and sixties, and I remember separate restrooms, separate drinking fountains, and separate places to sit at movies, the black people sat in the balcony with separate concession stands. Complete separation and certainly more overt in the south than in the north.”


In The Express the football field is a place where people of diverse backgrounds are forced to work together for a common goal and what happens on the field proves to have broader implications. Ernie Davis was both a stellar athlete and a man willing to work for social change.

“In the end it is a movie about living your life gracefully,” Quaid says, “and if god bestows grace in your life to use your life to its full effect, then Ernie Davis embodied that. He had a quiet grace, he transcended football and transcended color and was an amazing human being.”