In 1961, Syracuse University halfback Ernie Davis became the first African American to win the Heisman Trophy; two years later, at 23, he died of leukemia. Set amidst the era's civil-rights struggles, this golden-hued biopic packages "The Elmira Express" (who spent his early childhood in Uniontown, Pa.) as the mannerly, deferential yin to the fiery yang of the great Jim Brown, his predecessor at Syracuse, depicted here as Davis' mentor. But give screenwriter Charles Leavitt and director Gary Fleder credit: Their Davis (Rob Brown) is a paragon who knows when to pick his fights. He starts out a wide-eyed freshman on a de facto segregated campus, but ends up calling his bullheaded coach (Dennis Quaid) to account for not pushing the racial envelope enough, on the field and off. While Fleder's penchant for rumbly closeups saps the excitement from too many game sequences, The Express is a rousing tribute to a sports hero who died young. Starts Fri., Oct. 10.