Former Alabama star Tony Nathan opens up about 'Woodlawn,' revival, and the Bear Bryant-Nick Saban debate

by Michael Foust , Guest Reviewer |

Former Alabama player Tony Nathan, right, talks to producer Kevin Downes.

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (Christian Examiner) – Tony Nathan won a national championship at the University of Alabama and played in two Super Bowls for the Miami Dolphins, but even he wasn't prepared for the emotions that overtook him when he watched his life story on the big screen in the movie "Woodlawn."

The film depicts how Nathan became the first African American football star at Birmingham's Woodlawn High School, which was embroiled with racial strife at the time before a revival broke out on the football team and then spread to the city.

"It touched me. It had me in tears," Nathan told the Christian Examiner. "To see them talking about me on the screen, it was out of the ordinary. It was unbelievable that somebody would actually think my story was worth telling. And at least 95 percent of it was the way it happened. It was a thrill to see."

The movie opened last fall but has been a hit on DVD this year, opening at No. 6 in sales and sticking in the Top 20 (at No. 19) for the year. Its No. 19 slot puts it ahead of more well-known films such as "Jurassic World" and "Inside Out," according to The-Numbers.com.

The Christian Examiner spoke recently with Nathan about "Woodlawn," life and football. Following is a transcript:

CE: Caleb Castille played you in the movie, and he was the son of an Alabama player and an Alabama star (Jeremiah Castille). Did you talk to Caleb?

Nathan: Yes. He just wanted to find out about me and my personality. He talked to other people who knew me. He called me an introvert. He felt that was the character he had to play, and he played it well.

CE: What is the answer for our racial divides in America? Is it the same answer that you guys found during that revival?

Nathan: Yes. That's the only way you're going to do it; you've got one common denominator – Jesus Christ.

CE: The story that appears in the movie seems almost unbelievable – that this citywide revival started with just a few young players on a football team. Did it really happen that way?

Nathan: Yes, it did. The majority of us became believers and accepted one another for who we were. It just had a domino effect. At the time you didn't know it was going on like that, but it ended up spreading across the city itself.

CE: Do you think something similar could happen today in a city?

Nathan: I think it can. I think it can happen. People just have to open their hearts and let it go.

CE: Looking back to your time there in Birmingham, how did the Gospel transform relationships?

Nathan: People were looking for something to believe in – an inner peace. No man can give it to you. Money can't give it to you. You just open up your heart; His Word is Gospel.

CE: When you were looking at schools, did you consider anybody else except Alabama?

Nathan: Yes, I considered Oklahoma, Tennessee, Auburn, Georgia – I had letters from all over the country. I visited the majority of the schools I was interested in, and it came down to me wanting my parents to come see me. Coach Bryant came and offered. It was about an hour and 15 minutes from my house. That was the key.

CE: Who do you think is the better coach – Bear Bryant or [current Alabama coach] Nick Saban?

Nathan: I didn't play for Nick, but I know what Coach Bryant meant to me, and he was my father away from home. He was our disciplinarian. I'm sure if you talked to Caleb, Caleb would probably feel the same away about Saban as I do about Coach Bryant – in terms of working under him and learning things from him. Coach Bryant made me a better person.