Image Credit: cbn.com
Tony Nathan is a former professional football player who grew up in Birmingham, Alabama. He is the author of the book, “Touchdown Tony: Running with A Purpose” in which he chronicles his life experiences growing up in a city torn by racial discrimination in the 1960s and 1970s. His life is also depicted in the Erwin Brothers 2015 movie, “Woodlawn” which tells the story of the events that happened during the time of the Jesus Revolution.
For decades racial tension was so high in Birmingham such that it was also named Bombingham because many bombings took place against black people by white people. Woodlawn High School, the school Tony Nathan attended, was one school that drew a lot of attention from the media and the city as a whole because of the incidents of racial tension.
Much of the tension came after a state law was passed that all schools should desegregate and embrace both black and white people. Woodlawn High School was estimated to have approximately 2500 white people and 500 black people. Neither race had much exposure to the other before so there was lack of trust between the two races.
The negative attention attracted threatened its closure from the Board of Education in the state of Alabama as a result. By his own account Tony Nathan says it was so bad that even when he tried out for the school football team he and his fellow black friends were taunted by the white players when he first joined as a freshman. That was the time when the Jesus Revolution spiritual awakening was spreading throughout the country.
Match days were characterized by fighting between black and white supporters of the Woodlawn High School football team. The bone of contention was that white supporters only wanted their white players to be involved and the black supporters also wanted their players to play too. It was a predominantly white community.
Tony Nathan interview with The 700 Club
There came a time when an evangelist called Wales Goebel approached Tony’s football coach, Tandy Gerelds, to ask permission to speak to his team about Jesus. Tandy Gerelds who was a non-believer at the time initially refused but Wales Goebel persisted until he got a breakthrough. He spoke to the team about Jesus and challenged them to choose change through Jesus.
Almost the entire team gave their lives to Christ and the change was evident as the players started working together as a real team. This change in the players had a huge impact on their coach Tandy Gerelds who initially did not believe in God but then gave his own life to Jesus Christ. Wales Goebel had an assistant, Hank Erwin, who became the school’s sports chaplain and worked closely with Tandy Gereld’s football team. It was Hank that identified that Tony Nathan could become a superstar football player after seeing something special in him.
The transformation in the football team meant that the Woodlawn High School football team was the only place where black and white people got along. It was a strange thing in a racially charged city. Through Coach Gereld and Hank Erwin’s guidance the team began winning games more consistently. The team’s show of unity influenced the supporters to become united too.
That example would be the catalyst of the spiritual awakening in the city of Birmingham that would begin the healing process between black and white people. Tony Nathan was becoming an influential figure in the team with his performances. In a predominantly white community his brilliant performances were an encouragement to other black people in the community.
Tony’s increasing influence did not go unnoticed as detractors sought to discourage him to quit the game of football. It turned out to be a tough decision for him as he was considering how his family was being affected. His encouragement from family and Hank kept him going in spite of the opposition. Tony was made to realize that he was not just playing for himself but for a higher calling.
Tony’s playing career at Woodlawn High School culminated in what would become the greatest game in Alabama high school football history. They played against local rivals Banks High School for a play-off berth in a game which attracted about 42000 spectators. The truth of the matter is that those people didn’t come to watch two football teams, they came to watch Tony Nathan and Jeff Rutledge of Banks High School who were two of the best players in the State.
Tony Nathan and Jeff Rutledge would both go on to represent Alabama University and won a championship together years later. As a result of the changes in Woodlawn High School there was a revival that swept through the city and the school was never closed. Today the city is transformed and stands as an example of what happens when God shows up.
Here are 3 things we can learn from the events that took place in this community:
1. God uses the foolish things of this world to shame the wise
Tony Nathan was the central figure to sparking the revival that swept through the city of Birmingham. It was unheard of to have a black superstar in football or any capacity for that matter in that city. However, God gifted him with the ability to shine as a football player and be a beacon of hope to other black people and ultimately the entire city.
His success was not a credit to his own intelligence but to God all for his glory. God is good like that.
2. A few committed people can transform a community
Tandy Gereld’s football team built momentum to bring the changes to the city thanks to Wales Gobel’s boldness to tell them about Jesus Christ and challenge them to accept Him into their lives. The Bible talks about how one can chase a thousand and two can put ten thousand to flight. None of them could have predicted the outcome of their decisions but it turned out to be one of the best ever.
3. Love covers a multitude of sins
The community’s decision to love one another brought about a miraculous transformation that no one could comprehend. Love is the most powerful force on the earth and through it lives are saved and transformed. Love lets us know that there is a God in Heaven that loves and cares for us.
Love can heal the ills of the world today. It happened during the Jesus Revolution and it can happen again today if you choose to love your neighbor as you love yourself.