The Express is a rare inspirational sports film that remembers who sports are supposed to inspire: other people.
While in many ways the story follows familiar genre conventions, The Express isn't just about individual achievement, following your dreams, or coming together as a team. It isn't even just about facing social pressure and overcoming racist opposition, like many earlier racially aware sports films (Remember the Titans, Glory Road, Pride, etc.)—though race does play a major role in the film.
The Express is aware that what Ernie Davis (likeable Rob Brown of Finding Forrester) does out on the field matters not only to him and his teammates and family, to his coach, Ben Schwartzwalder (Dennis Quaid, solid as always), or even to the other team. It matters to anonymous fans of color who come to his games or who spot him in the team bus from an adjacent bus on the road. "Now that's something, for colored folk around here to open a newspaper and see your name, Ernie," his brother Will (Nelsan Ellis), an NAACP activist, points out to him.
In a way, The Express is not the story of a football player, or of a team, but of a number. The number is 44, the number of the white and black Syracuse jersey worn by three great black running backs from 1954 to 1966. The number passed from the legendary Jim Brown, whom some believe was the best running back of all time, to Davis, the "Emira Express," the first black player to win the prestigious Heisman Trophy (some have felt Brown should have won it first), and finally to future Denver Broncos great Floyd Little.
The Express is about passing the torch. In 1950 the torch is carried by Jackie Robinson of the Brooklyn Dodgers, whom young Ernie (Justin Martin), growing up in Uniontown, Pennsylvania, sees in storefront televisions and posters. Ernie struggles with stuttering, and it means something to him that Jackie "is doing a lot without saying nothing."
Later, moving to Elmira, New York, Ernie finds his outlet in small-fry and high school football, and idolizes Brown, who has just graduated from Syracuse and signed with the Cleveland Browns. Syracuse coach Schwartzwalder, trying to fill the hole in his roster, recognizes Davis's stellar talent, and realizes that every college team in the country—every integrated team, that is—will be after a high-school player of his caliber.
So the coach turns to a secret weapon: Jim Brown himself (charismatic Darrin Dewitt Henson), whom Schwartzwalder shrewdly persuades to go to Elmira and help recruit Davis for the Orangemen. What good is Jim's success, Schwartzwalder somewhat cynically argues, if he isn't willing to give a helping hand to the next kid? It's an argument Jim grudgingly accepts for one reason: He knows Schwartzwalder is a good coach who will help Davis reach his full potential. Throughout the film Jim is a welcome presence in the background of Davis's career, and toward the end Davis has a similar opportunity to pass the torch to another up-and-coming player.