| Jersey No. 44 at Syracuse University is one of the most storied numbers ever associated with a college football program. The three most famous to proudly wear those digits – Jim Brown, Ernie Davis and Floyd Little – certainly rank among the finest running backs to ever play the game.
This inspirational sports drama follows the extraordinary life of relatively unknown and often forgotten Davis (Rob Brown from "Finding Forrester," "Coach Carter" and "Take the Lead"), nicknamed "the Elmira Express," who was the first African-American to win the Heisman Trophy.
He had the ability to reverse fields and spin on a dime with lightning quick moves. His electrifying running from the halfback position led Syracuse to an undefeated season in 1959 and a Cotton Bowl triumph on New Year’s Day against Texas.
This is a great human interest story. Davis’ idol growing up was Brooklyn Dodgers star Jackie Robinson, who broke the color barrier in baseball. Davis also believed in doing his talking on the field, where he showed unparalleled grit and determination.
Dennis Quaid ("The Rookie" and "Any Given Sunday") makes an indelible impression as the legendary coach Ben Schwartzwalder. He stressed to his players that they were fighting prejudice. He specifically advised Davis that there were lines, not part of the game, that run deeper and wider and should never be crossed. This included the taboo of dating white girls.
Davis, who was personally recruited by Jim Brown, had big shoes to fill. He played both offense and defense. His first rushing touchdown came in the opening game of 1959 against the Kansas Jayhawks, who are depicted as the opposing squad in their light blue uniforms.
As the growing civil rights movement divided the country in the 1960s, Davis became a heroic symbol that transcended race. His fight for equality and respect changed forever the face of American sports.
The movie’s main themes are personal integrity, triumph, tragedy and glory.
Davis was drafted by the Cleveland Browns of the NFL, but died of leukemia in 1963. The devastating combination of Davis and Brown in the same dream backfield never came to pass. They would have threatened the Green Bay Packers dynasty under coach Vince Lombardi.
Davis ranks with other black pioneers by teaching a generation about tolerance and smashing racial roadblocks on and off the field.
Actual archival black and white footage is seamlessly inserted into the narrative. This deserves to be ranked as one of the best sports movies of all time with strong and courageous performances by Brown and Quaid in the lead roles.
Charles S. Dutton stands out in a supporting role as the grandfather.
The gridiron action is realistic and exciting. The movie features some great shots of the Syracuse campus.
This important chapter in the history and tradition of college football deserves to be remembered with pride. Even if you are not an armchair quarterback or a sports aficionado, you will want to see the emotional touchdowns lighting up the scoreboard on a big screen.
Keith Cohen, "The Movie Guy"