“Touchdown Tony” Has the Solution to Reconcile a Divided People
Birmingham, AL was once one of the most segregated cities in the United States. racial tension had been brewing for years. What added to the problem was when the federal government forced communities to desegregate their all-white public schools.
The film Woodlawn, tells the story of what happened during that time when the school’s racial divided football team is encouraged to unite in faith. Tony Nathan, played by Caleb Castille, would be the spark that the team needed to unite the school and the community. In 1971, the “real” Tony Nathan was a rising freshman when he and many other African-American students were bused from across town to Woodlawn.
Shawn: What was the thought? Were you all happy about it?
“You wonder what they think about you because of the color of your skin, just because you’re different,” said Tony.
Tony grew up with Christian values and was taught to treat everyone equally.
“My parents taught me not to –not judge the book by a cover, to give everybody the time of day, respect them. I mean, to get respect you got to-- really got to earn it,” said Tony.
Those values were put to the test when Tony tried out for Woodlawn’s football team under new head coach Tandy Gerelds. From the first day of summer football practice, trouble started brewing between white and black players.
“They noticed the ability that you had going in. And eventually, if you was playing the same position, you was going to take them. I was looking to take the spot, to tell you the truth, I was looking to play.”
Some of the players tried to get under Tony’s skin.
Shawn: What type of things were said?
“N” word. You was called black this, black that. Coon,” said Tony.
The team wasn’t very good Tony’s freshman year. By his sophomore season he had earned a the starting job at free safety. The player whose position he took was white, and confronted Tony, claiming it was his spot. It was then that coach Gerelds made it clear where he stood.
“He said no, this is not what you’re going to –this is my team. I’ll do what I want to do so go sit down,” said Tony.
The next season, Tony was moved to running back where he really began to shine. By then, coach Gerelds was having some success getting players to tolerate their teammates.
“The way Coach Gerelds was, you know, okay we hate one another true enough. Use that hatred for something good, to go out and win football games,” said Tony.
However, there were many who didn’t want change. In the movie, that’s when Hank Erwin played by Sean Astin approached coach Geralds and asked for permission to address the team during summer practice. It was actually local Evangelist Wales Goebel, Hank was working with him.
Shawn: What actually happened?
“He told us about Christ and that was the plan and making up for us and it was like, how are you going to ??, how do you know? You know. And then all of a sudden he just said look, you know, the plan is that you make the commitment to Him. He’ll make a commitment to you.”
One of the white players was the first to accept Christ and the challenge of commitment. Tony was the second. Then, practically the entire team one by one went down to accept Christ into their hearts. At the next practice Tony says he could feel a difference amongst the team in the locker room.
“Once everybody got, you know, made the commitment, it was like there was no color. Things just changed.”
Hank Erwin became the school’s sports chaplain. He convinced Tony that he was he was playing a greater purpose.
Shawn: Did you feel like you were playing for something greater?
“I get chills now even thinking about some of the conversations I used to have with Hank. He said well, do your plan for God, there’s a higher calling that you plan for. Give it all to Him and He’ll bless you tenfold. Things started to happen. We started winning,” said Tony.
As the players united in faith and purpose, the school and the community began to come together in unity to support the team. Tony’s senior year, they ended the season 9-1 losing to their rival Banks high school for a playoff berth in a game deemed the greatest game in Alabama high school football history with over 42,000 spectators. Shortly after, Tony was recruited by legendary coach Paul “Bear” Bryant to play for the University of Alabama. After 4 years and the 1978 National Championship, Tony was selected by the Miami Dolphins in the 1979 NFL draft. In nine seasons with the Dolphins, he helped them reach two superbowls. He recently released a book entitled Touchdown Tony: Running with a Purpose, where he tells his story with even greater insight. And hopes readers will understand the importance of faith in sports and the influence one can have through a relationship with Jesus Christ.
“If you believe in the game plan that somebody gives you to execute, having faith in Jesus Christ is the same. It’s a game plan. His game plan. You just got to have faith and walk with Him,” said Tony.