This film is based on true events that took place in Birmingham, Alabama. It is directed by Andrew Erwin and Jon Erwin (Mom’s Night Out, October Baby). The film is written by Jon Erwin and Quinton Peeples, and is based on the book Woodlawn: One Hope. One Dream. One Way by Todd Gerelds, the son of Woodlawn High School Coach Tandy Gerelds. Todd is portrayed in the film as a young boy by Jet Jurgensmeyer.
We are told at the beginning of the film that Birmingham was known as “Bombingham” as the city had experienced more than 50 bombings linked to race issues since 1947. The film is set in 1973, ten years after Dr. Martin Luther King’s Birmingham campaign. Racial tensions are high. The Alabama governor is the racist George Wallace who attempted to block the integration of schools.
Woodlawn High School is a school of 2,500 whites, but is being forced to accept 500 black students due to integration. We see fights break out often and angry students. A few of the black students are on the school’s football team, including running back Tony Nathan (Caleb Catille), and are coached by Tandy Geralds (Nic Bishop). The Woodlawn team is not expected to win many games that season.
Hank (Oscar nominee Sean Astin), a sports chaplain asks to speak to the team. He is denied the opportunity by Coach Geralds. However, after more violence takes place at the school, the coach decides to give him five minutes with the team. After an hour, almost the entire team commits their lives to Christ, the beginning of an incredible movement of Christianity that would greatly impact the team, their main rival and the entire city of Birmingham for years to come.
This is a faith-based film that is well-made and features themes of faith, race, courage, reconciliation and love. A recurring theme we hear from Hank is “That’s what happens when God shows up”.
Oscar winner (Best Actor for Coming Home) Jon Voight plays the legendary Alabama Coach Paul Bear Bryant in the film. As the film opens he has invited the integrated University of Southern California football team to play his University of Alabama Crimson Tide in Tuscaloosa, Alabama in 1970. After USC defeats his Crimson Tide, he visits the USC locker room and congratulates running back Sam Cunningham, one of the black players. He is portrayed as a kind man who sees people as people and not black or white.
Sean Astin’s “Hank” is actually a combination of three people (Wales Goebel, a former house builder who began reaching out to area high schools; Hank Erwin, father to directors Andrew Erwin and Jon Erwin, who was the team’s chaplain for two years, and Mike Huckabee, whose experience at Explo 72 informed some of the dialogue. The legendary voice of Crimson Tide football announcer Eli Gold did some of the announcing for the high school games in the movie.
The acting, particularly by Voight and Catille, is excellent. The football scenes are realistic, at times mixed in with the historical footage, and the messages from this incredible true story are excellent. I’m not a huge fan of faith-based films, but this one follows War Room as a very solid film that I can highly recommend.
Another resource you may want to check out after seeing the film is the book Touchdown Tony: Running with a Purpose by Tony Nathan.
Trivia: near the end of the film we see that Coach Geralds has left coaching and taken a job as a State Farm Insurance agent. I have proudly worked at State Farm for more than 35 years.