In the summer of 1972, after I gave up a full scholarship to Oberlin College to attend Pacific School of Theology in Seattle, students from our college went to Dallas to attend a Billy Graham evangelistic event that was geared toward young people. It was called Explo ’72, and was held at the height of the Jesus People Movement. Close to 40,000 kids gathered in the hot sun to surrender to Christ, and the team came back with marvelous testimonies which will always be precious to me. But somewhere in that stadium was an unknown young man that you will have the chance to “meet” starting October 16th through the vehicle of the movie, Woodlawn.
The young man’s name was Hank Erwin, and a year after Explo, he ended up functioning as the chaplain of the Woodlawn High School football team in Birmingham. Integration had been mandated, racial tensions ran high, and it was not a time when the concept of “separation of church and state” equaled no religion on campus. Hank, who is played by Sean Astin of Lord of the Rings, told the team that they had the power to change what was going on around them, but it would only happen through surrender to Christ’s love. He challenged them to forgive each other and go a new way, and nearly the entire 40 member team did so.
Enter African American Tony Nathan, who became Woodlawn’s star running back, and who was eventually recruited by Bear Bryant to play for Alabama. (Coach Bryant is played by Academy Award winner John Voight.) Tony was nicknamed “Touchdown Tony,” and the entire town, black and white, got behind him and went to see him play. He was quiet, humble, and not at all comfortable with the spotlight. But he and his team were the ones that proved that the love of God can heal offenses going back hundreds of years, and it was the testimony of the kids that drove their coach, Tandy Geralds, to accept Christ and be baptized.
The transformation of the team and the coach changed things in Birmingham. Tony Nathan went on to play for the Miami Dolphins and was in two Super Bowls. And the story might have faded permanently into quietness, if it weren’t for two special filmmakers, Jon and Andy Erwin. If the name sounds familiar, it’s because their dad is Hank Erwin, the young man that was at the same Billy Graham event as my friends.
Hank would tell the story of all that happened at Woodlawn to the boys as a bedtime story. He would act out all the parts, go leaping and running through the room while impersonating Tony Nathan, and it was one of their favorites. They knew the time had come to bring this remarkable story to the big screen, and while they were able to get such veteran actors as Astin and Voight to play the parts, the fact that they found 23 year old newcomer Caleb Castille, (who played for Nick Sabin at ‘Bama), to take on the role of Tony, was a true Godsend. Caleb is a strong believer, and get this: Caleb’s dad played with Touchdown Tony for Bear Bryant, too! Caleb grew up knowing all about what happened at Woodlawn.
So, why do I think Woodlawn will win our hearts? Because it’s well made, it’s about God’s love, it’s about football, and it’s about Alabama the Beautiful. To my mind, that’s all we need, and the time is now for the truth to triumph.