Above: Todd Gerelds, the author of the book that inspired the movie, and Tony Nathan, whose story is depicted in the film, show off their books they will be signing prior to Thursday’s premiere of “Woodlawn” at Patton Creek. (contributed)
When the movie “Woodlawn” has a Birmingham special premiere Thursday, ahead of its national release Friday, there will be two people in the audience crucial to the story that has become a feature film.
Todd Gerelds, the author of the book that inspired the movie, and Tony Nathan, the football star portrayed in the film, will be at Carmike Patton Creek 15 while the screen brings the story back to life.
Nathan will see the movie for the first time, opting to watch the final product with his family. “From what I’ve seen of the trailers, it’s pretty much true to what happened to me,” he said. “What I’ve seen, I’ve been touched by.”
Gerelds has seen the finished work a few times. He has watched it along with several football teams – including Alabama and Auburn, respectively – as they prepared for games.
The son of former Woodlawn High football coach Tandy Gerelds sheepishly accepts praise for writing the book. “All I did,” he said, “was retold a memory.”
A synopsis on the back cover calls it a “behind-the-scenes look at the life and career of Tandy Gerelds … and how faith, teamwork and purpose can heal a divided community.”
Todd Gerelds is 11 years younger than Nathan. He was a wide-eyed 6-year-old who got to hang around with members of the Woodlawn Colonels football team, riding to and from games with players on the bus and spending time with them in the locker room.
“You have to know how much I loved Tony and his family as a little boy,” the author told Alabama NewsCenter. “As a little boy, it’s hero worship almost. Dad was my No. 1 hero and Tony Nathan was my second.”
On the team bus, the youngster wanted to be next to Nathan. After games, he wanted nothing more than to be around him. His family sat with Nathan’s parents in the stands during Colonels games.
“I didn’t know any better, or worse,” the author said. “I didn’t know how things were other than that. That was an atypical upbringing for a kid in Birmingham, Alabama.”
According to the synopsis, a new chaplain came to Woodlawn High as the Jesus Movement arose in the 1970s. That chaplain, Hank Erwin, challenged Nathan to “run with a purpose” and help bring his divided team together.
Nathan said he wasn’t trying to do that.
“I can’t claim that,” he said. “I was just doing what I was gifted to do.”
Todd Gerelds said he didn’t realize how profound the racial transformation had been at Woodlawn until his father’s coaching career resumed at Deshler High School in the 1980s.
“I got there and realized, ‘Man, this is a lot different from where I came from,’” he recalled. “Suddenly I realized the magnitude of what happened at Woodlawn. I realized the events at Woodlawn were a really big deal and what God transformed in the lives of people, that they loved each other.”
Gerelds says the country has taken a few steps back in recent years.
“I’m excited to see what God can do to open peoples’ eyes to racism and to the fact that it’s God who changes hearts,” he said. “Forgiveness and love, those two principles from the Word, are what made the movie ‘Woodlawn’ and what made that story what it is.”
Nathan went from Woodlawn to star as a running back at Alabama and then with the Miami Dolphins. He’s now a bailiff in Dade County, Fla., and has written his own book – “Touchdown Tony: Running with a Purpose.”
“Mine starts out with me being in high school with Coach Gerelds and what I went through in high school,” he said. “It goes on to me finishing college … me being in pro football and the blessings that I’ve had during that time and still having.”
Could another movie be on the way? Nathan laughed at the prospect.
“If the good Lord wants to bless me again that way, I’ll be glad to go along with that,” he said.
Gerelds and Nathan will be available for a book signing from 5:30 to 6:15 p.m. Thursday at Patton Creek. The pair will slip away and drive up for an official red carpet arrival.