While I was at the International Christian Retail Show this past June, I was privileged to view the pre-release version of Woodlawn, the true story of the Woodlawn High School football team in Birmingham in 1973-74. The story is that of Tony Nathan, a running back for Woodlawn, who went on to the University of Alabama and thence to the Dolphins in 1979.
Birmingham in 1973 was one of the most segregated cities in the United States. George Wallace was the governor of Alabama and total anti-desegregation. His feelings ran rampant in the high schools. Black athletes were only marginally accepted. The coach, Tandy Gerelds (Nic Bishop in the movie), kept journals during this era—his son, Todd, wrote the book based on these journals, which formed the basis for the movie.
I cannot remember the last time I was so enraptured by a movie. I viewed it with a friend and I don’t think either one of us moved while the film was on the screen. Tony Nathan, played brilliantly by Caleb Castille, becomes a member of the Woodlawn High School football team after the school is desegregated. The two or three black athletes were relegated to the bench most games. Hank (played by Sean Astin), who has been radically affected by the message of hope and love he experienced at a Christian revival meeting, begged to speak to the team. Coach Gerelds was having none of it until the racial unrest at the school broke out into fights and violence. After Hank had spoken, he challenged the team to change, to choose, to choose Jesus—all but two or three players accepted. Gerelds could not believe what had just happened, but his team started playing together and started winning. Tony Nathan became their star player. The entire town learned “hate is a powerful force, but love is more powerful. Love can overcome!”
The big game of the year was against Banks High School whose quarterback, Jeff Rutledge, was also a Christian. The teams met, Hank spoke, and Rutledge’s team also primarily accepted Christ. Told they couldn’t pray before a game, the team was a bit disheartened, but one person in the crowd started the Lord’s Prayer and it spread throughout the stadium. Tony and Jeff were both recruited to Alabama by Bear Bryant (Jon Voight), who came and lived in Tony’s house until Tony agreed to come to the U of Alabama. What a story! What an incredible movie! You will want to see Woodlawn more than once AND take everyone you know to see it too. Even if you’re not a football fan, you’ll love the story of Tony Nathan and Woodlawn. Five stars.
The story of Woodlawn was very familiar to the Erwins—almost a bedtime story. They were excited to make this movie as making Christian-based films is their mission in life. Having the journals of Tandy Gerelds and the book by his son made the screenplay totally realistic. For example, the speech Tandy gives in the church near the end of the film is all his—word for word.
I also had the privilege of interviewing the star of the movie, Caleb Castille, one of the producers, and their publicity manager. Caleb is a delightful young man of twenty-three, who left a promising football career to become an actor. Caleb’s dad, Jeremiah, was a defensive back at Alabama shortly after Tony Nathan left for the Dolphins. Tony did all the football scenes in the movie in person. The last play shown (which is a spectacular one!) was filmed in one take. Caleb told me when I asked him why he’d chosen to make movies instead of play football, he feels this is his calling—to make these kinds of films with these kinds of messages.
Caleb went on to say that he struggled as a student and was turned off by our educational process. He learned more out of school and on his own—he says he’s pretty much of a “trial and error” guy. He states that God has his ways of pulling your excellence out of you and he’s now thinking and speaking much more widely about his faith now than before.
Besides being fascinated with the Woodlawn message and the movie, I was even further intrigued when I heard the name of Woodlawn’s rival’s quarterback, Jeff Rutledge. Jeff went on to play for several teams in the NFL and eventually played for the New York Giants. The chaplain for the Giants at that time was a good friend of ours. Roy often played golf with David and Jeff—and we had them over for dinner. So it’s a small world—I could not have predicted a movie I screened, would be partially about a man we’d entertained and fed.
Tony Nathan went on to play for the Dolphins and finished his nine NFL seasons with 3,543 yards rushing, 383 receptions for 3,592 yards, and 32 touchdowns (16 each rushing and receiving). He also completed four of eight passes for 61 yards and a touchdown. He was the running back coach for Tampa Bay and Florida International University. Presently he is the bailiff for a former teammate in Miami-Dade County.
An article on MiamiDolphins.com, tells us “The movie, which includes a re-creation of the 1974 Alabama state championship game that remains the most-attended high school game in state history, is part of what has been a memorable year for Nathan.
In May, he fulfilled a promise he had made to Bryant at the end of his college career and earned his degree more than 36 years after leaving the University of Alabama.
“Like I say, this has been an outstanding, awesome year for me,” Nathan said. “It’s been unbelievable.”