God and football helped save Birmingham, Alabama in the 1970s. Racked by racial tension as schools tried to usher in desegregation, the city needed a miracle. That miracle came in the form of a Christian who offered a simple message to the Woodlawn football team: Let the love of God overcome their hatred. Once they accepted that message, their faith had a positive domino effect among those who attended their games and witnessed their new attitudes. Woodlawn, a new film from Pure Flix Entertainment, will depict this inspiring true story of how God used a football team to heal a broken community.
Australian actor Nic Bishop stars in the film as Woodlawn football coach Tandy Gerelds. He spoke with Townhall about what drew him to this central role.
“For me it’s always the character," Bishop explained. "How the character fits into the story. Is this a character I want to spend all day, every day with? Is this a person I want to get to know more and explore all of their traits or faults? Obviously, the bigger picture is the story and if it’s a worthwhile story to tell, if it’s something that I want to go and see in the theater, and those boxes were both definitely ticked."
Bishop's criteria were met because of his legendary source material. Gerelds coached Woodlawn high school during the height of racial animosity. Although the film portrays Gerelds’ initial hesitation to let a ‘Jesus freak’ speak to his players, he came to know God’s grace and allowed it to unify his team. A former player described how Gerelds’ leadership was successful because it relied on more than just running drills.
"Coach Tandy Geralds was a fine man and a fine coach, and he had a lot to do with a lot of players on that team coming to know the Lord," Brad Hendrix, a senior defensive end on the '74 team, says.
One of the most powerful scenes in “Woodlawn,” is the moment Coach Gerelds takes fragile steps into his players’ predominantly African-American church. After explaining to the congregation that he sees the positive changes God has made in those young men’s lives, he proclaims, “I want what my players have,” and is baptized in the pulpit.
Bishop said it was just as powerful filming the scene as it is for the audience watching, particularly because of one detail.
“The Erwin brothers decided not to tell me that all of the African-American extras, background people in that scene, were the actual congregation,” he explained. “That’s the church that they actually go to. So all the responses you’re getting from those people are real. In a way, as an actor it was this huge challenge on top of everything else but it was really authentic obviously. I think standing up in front of any group of people, regardless of color or race or their background or their ethnicity or their faith, and telling them something honorable to you from your heart. And he’s a man who doesn’t really do that. He doesn’t tell people he loves them, he doesn’t stand up and reveal himself very much, so it was a hugely moving experience.”
It was, he said, a pinnacle in Coach Gereld’s journey – and he wanted to get it right.
“I circled that page and written notes all over it,” he shared. “That was one of those ones I knew I had to really step up once I got to that place because it’s kind of a game changing scene in the film.”
Gerelds’ faith, and that of his players, is a large reason why Woodlawn high school was able to overcome much of its racial hatred. Considering race relations have reached a new fever pitch in American culture in the past couple of years, I asked Bishop to put the film in a modern perspective.
“I think whether it be now or 20 years ago, I think these films are very important,” he remarked. “Regardless of people’s faith or their belief system. Just to watch a story and become part of a story of a group of people who decided to rise above all of that anger and that hatred and find a way to unite and come together is absolutely worthwhile.”
In addition to capturing this profound message, Bishop was tasked with an athletic challenge as well. The Australian actor admitted he doesn’t play football, but having played rugby for years he understands the grueling aspect of such physically demanding competition.
“I think it’s worse than a rugby game," he said. "In rugby if you get hit once you can get up and shake it off, but in these things, we’re doing over and over again, the repetition of it. But it wasn’t as bad for me, I just got to stand on the sidelines and scream at the boys. They’re the ones that have to get up and dust themselves off and iron out their kinks and bruises and keep running into each other. They were really amazing."
‘Woodlawn’ comes out in theaters October 16 and also stars Oscar winner Jon Voigt, 'Lord of the Rings' actor Sean Astin and newcomer Caleb Castille as inspiring running back Tony Nathan. Until then, enjoy the powerful trailer:
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story misspelled Coach Tandy Gerelds' name. We apologize for the error.