The Heisman Trophy, named for former college football coach John Heisman and awarded annually since 1935, is one of college football's most prestigious awards. Presented to the outstanding player of the year, as chosen by sports journalists, it honors exceptional athletic achievements.
By 1960 however, it had never been awarded to an African American player. Yet that was all about to change the following year when Ernie Davis from Elmira, New York became the first Black nominee to win the honor.
Nicknamed the Elmira Express during his college career, the young Ernie's (Justin Martin) penchant for running was honed during his growing-up years when white, school-aged bullies felt entitled to beat up their segregated neighbors. Taking up football as a teen, he further developed his ability to outmaneuver and outstrip his opponents.
His talent pays off a few years later when Syracuse University head coach Ben Schwartzwalder (Dennis Quaid) gets wind of the speedy running back. Accompanied by the NFL Cleveland Brown's draft pick Jim Brown (Darrin Dewitt Henson), Ben convinces Ernie (Rob Brown) to come play for the school.
However, all the sweet-talking stops when the boys hit the grass. The perpetually scowling Coach Schwartzwalder spits nails on the sidelines, demanding hard work, commitment and a toe-the-line attitude from his players. But outside of practice, things are even worse for Ernie and his teammate, Jack Buckley (Omar Benson Miller). Recruited at the height of racial unrest in the U.S. when Jim Crow laws still insisted on separate entrances, restrooms, water fountains and eating establishments for Black Americans and other minorities, Ernie and Jack are subjected to racial slurs, excessive roughness on the field and demeaning hostility from fans. Along with this racially motivated violence, viewers will also be privy to a mid-game brawl, joint-jarring tackles, frequent profanities and a brief but completely unnecessary scene where a man begins to undress a woman.
It's unfortunate these out-of-bounds diversions distract from the story since this film, like many other inspirational sports stories about this era, depicts a different kind of civil rights movement. Rather than taking their protests to the streets, these players prove they are equal on football fields, basketball courts and in other sporting arenas. Faced with opposition on and off the athletic grounds, Ernie, his team and the coaching staff eventually rise above the discrimination of the day by confronting their own prejudiced beliefs. Lining up shoulder-to-shoulder--Sophomore and Senior, Jew and Christian, Black and White--the Syracuse Orange football squad becomes a formidable force in the fight against racism.