The newest Erwin Brothers production tells the true story of the 1970s football team that changed Birmingham.
Written by Lindsey Osborne
If you only love those who love you back, what kind of love is that?”
In Birmingham, Alabama, in the year 1973, that was the question asked in the small neighborhood of Woodlawn. It had been a decade since the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing and yet—and yet—Birmingham was still waiting for the tide to turn. It’s obvious to us now, more than 40 years later, that racial tensions do not dissipate overnight; nor do they in 10, 20, even 40 years.
That year, something happened in Woodlawn that picked Birmingham up and hauled her toward the future many people imagined, the one others were afraid of. It was the story of the football team at Woodlawn High School, which included a shy running back by the name of Tony Nathan. What happened there and the way it changed Birmingham was the inspiration for the film Woodlawn: The Undeniable True Story, in theaters nationwide on Oct. 16. The story is one that directors Andy and Jon Erwin, of Erwin Brothers Entertainment, have been hearing since they were small; their dad, Hank Erwin, used to tell it to them as a bedtime story. Hank told the story on good authority—he lived it. “I saw this story acted out in my bedroom multiple times, where our dad would play out all the parts,” Andy says. “He’d be running back and forth and telling us what Tony was doing and jumping up and down.”
Many of us have heard the name Tony Nathan; after his tenure at Woodlawn, he went on to play for Paul “Bear” Bryant at the University of Alabama and was selected in the third round of the 1979 NFL Draft by the Miami Dolphins. His career was a storied one; he eventually played as starting running back for the Dolphins in Super Bowl XVII and Super Bowl XIX. After nine seasons in the NFL, he made the jump to coach, which he did for the Dolphins, the San Francisco 49ers, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, among others. But Woodlawn is the story of Nathan’s beginning, which is as remarkable as the career this beginning would launch him down. Many men have excelled in the sport of football, but few have made such a difference as they did.
On the screen, we pick up in 1973; Woodlawn High School has just recently been integrated, much to its chagrin. As a result, the school—and the city—erupts into violence, and the football team, the Woodlawn Colonels, is no exception. Coach Tandy Geralds (Nic Bishop, Home and Away and Body of Proof) is tasked with keeping his team in line in the face of something it seems no one wants. Hank Erwin (Sean Astin, The Goonies, Rudy, and The Lord of the Rings), an outsider who wants to share the love of Jesus, pleads with Coach Geralds to allow him to speak to the football team, hoping to offer them a different way. Geralds relents and is stunned when his entire team converts to Christianity. That’s the beginning of what would be many surprises of the 1973 season. With a change of heart, the team begins to lead the school as it grapples with the racism that made Birmingham infamous during that time. The team also experiences its own revival as the players learn that they are stronger together than apart. And finally, Nathan’s story comes to life as the once-unsure boy finds his stride.
The movie boasts an all-star cast, including C. Thomas Howell (E.T. and The Outsiders), Sherri Shepherd (Everybody Loves Raymond and How I Met Your Mother), and Jon Voight (Mission: Impossible, Heat, and Transformers), playing Paul “Bear” Bryant. “I’ve seen a lot in my life. I’m 75 years old,” Voight says. “I don’t like racism, any kind of racism. It’s so idiotic. When people think racially, it ain’t no good. Somehow, we need leadership. And Jon and Andy have provided some with this movie.” Andy shares that also on set in Birmingham (Birminghamians will recognize many settings in the film) was Todd Geralds, Coach Geralds’s real-life son. “We weren’t convinced we had a movie till we heard Coach Geralds’s point of view,” he says. “We had Tony Nathan as the reluctant hero, my father, Hank, as the unabashed optimist. But we needed a point of view that was an entry point for the audience. And Todd Geralds, Coach Geralds’ son, had a seven-page telling of the story that his dad wrote as he was dying of cancer. And as we read that, we knew his was the point of view of the cynic who is redeemed. That’s when we knew we had a movie.”
Newcomer Caleb Castille shines as Tony Nathan, and he is well suited for the role—he, too, played football at the University of Alabama, winning two national championships under Coach Nick Saban in 2011 and 2012. “I walked away from football because I believed my calling was to get into the entertainment industry,” Castille explains. “I guess the most pivotal part of that decision was actually quitting football at the height of our success.” Castille’s football history, which stretches back into his childhood (his father is Jeremiah Castille, also a University of Alabama and NFL football player), made him the perfect candidate to portray a young Tony Nathan. The process of preparing for the role, he says, was grueling nonetheless. “Preparing for Woodlawn was pretty rigorous. I had to get back in shape after I was out of football for a year. I also had to grow my hair,” he says with a laugh. “But nothing can actually prepare for you for the moment. On the nights we were filming the rain scenes, it was 27 degrees outside and they were dumping water on me for six hours straight.” That was thanks to Mark Ellis, the film’s football coordinator, who has worked on films like We Are Marshall, The Longest Yard, Jerry Maguire, and more. “Football, maybe outside of war, is the closest you can get to looking inside a man’s heart and finding out what he’s made of,” Ellis says. “Football is a fight. It’s a battle. So it lends a platform to tell these great stories.
“There’s no way to fake this stuff,” he continues. “Everyone thinks with Hollywood that we do this with smoke and mirrors. No. These guys have got to get hit. It’s hard to believe the tears in the locker room if you don’t believe the catch in the end zone.”
And so the story of something greater unfolds on the turf. Castille points out that in its simplest form, it’s a story of overcoming. “I think what intrigued me most about the story was Tony Nathan’s humility and how he also had to find the courage to overcome his fear. When he first started playing football, he was afraid. He was afraid to get hit. And he was afraid of this gift, this extraordinary gift he had of running,” he explains. “Once he got over that and he started to figure out how powerful this gift was, it began to change his community. That’s when he began to have an impact.
“My hope for the movie is that people leave it and ask themselves how they can be a better person,” he says. “I hope they ask how they can help our society today face a lot of these same issues.”