Before Bo Jackson, one of Birmingham’s first African American football stars was Tony Nathan.
The All-American running back’s rise to stardom during his junior season in 1973, along with the arrival of Head Coach Tandy Gerelds in 1971, led to the Woodlawn Colonels serving as catalysts for change and garnering crowds of thousands for game nights.
The 2015 “Woodlawn” documents Nathan’s struggle to balance his athletic skills and faith while battling racial anxiety on and off the field. The film also highlights the rivalry between the former Banks High School and Woodlawn High School. Many of the former Banks and Woodlawn players went on to play college football at SEC schools (mainly Alabama and Auburn) and professionally in the NFL.
But, one of Woodlawn’s most prominent alums is Bobby Bowden, who led Florida State to two national championships in the midst of becoming the winningest coach in college football history.
Nathan played at The University of Alabama along with former Banks quarterback and rival Jeff Rutledge. They would share a national championship at UA and both go on to win two NFL Super Bowls, Nathan with the Miami Dolphins and Rutledge with the New York Giants and Washington Redskins.
If Nathan’s mother and coach hadn’t talked him out of quitting football, he wouldn’t have had a spiritual and athletic impact on his high school teammates, been positively influenced by Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant and won a national championship, played nine NFL seasons resulting in two Super Bowls, served as an assistant coach for the Miami Dolphins, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers, or written his recently published book, “Touchdown Tony: Running With a Purpose.”
Most importantly, he wouldn’t have been able to fulfill his promise he made to Coach Bryant before he left UA for the NFL.
After his senior season in 1978, Nathan had fallen behind in some of his classes due to playing in three all-star games, including the Senior Bowl.
He wanted to drop some courses but could only do so with Bryant’s approval, which came under one condition: that Nathan would eventually complete his degree requirements.
On May 2, 2015, the 58-year-old Nathan received his bachelor’s degree during UA’s commencement.
After seeing his wife and three daughters all earn college degrees, he took online courses to complete his requirements and fulfill his promise. He also wrote a paper on “The correlation between coaching, psychology and religion” for his final project.
Through his bachelor’s degree, book and now “Woodlawn,” the triumph of Tony Nathan that began over 40 years ago continues.
Caleb Castille, who plays Nathan in the film, is also a Birmingham native who played three seasons as a walk-on cornerback at Alabama before pursuing an acting career. He suggests the movie offers a lesson from the past and a message the world could use right now.
The film hits theaters today.
Sources: Al.com, Sporting News and IMDB