Of Football, Faith and Film

Of Football, Faith and Film
Photo courtesy of Grace Hill Media

When Andy and Jon Erwin were filming University of Alabama football games for networks like ESPN in the 1990s, life was less complicated. They had a gift for sharing the gospel of the gridiron—a knack for serving up red meat for millions of hungry American sports fans.

Now 37 and 33, nearly a decade departed from that cozy calling, they’re using football again, this time to share a much different Gospel and to feed a hunger much more desperate.

Their newest film, Woodlawn, tells the inspiring true story of how a high school football field became ground zero for a wide-sweeping revival in tumultuous, post-segregation Birmingham, Ala.

The film’s message of reconciliation is a timely one.

And it’s time, the filmmakers say, for history to repeat itself.

“We wanted to make a movie that was much, much bigger than the typical Christian film,” says Jon. “If we can unify the church, we can really change the world.”

Family Affair

Hank Erwin has done a lot in the service of others over the last six and a half decades. He gave his life to the Lord at age 20 in 1969, and after attending the Explo ’72 Rally in Dallas, found himself hard-charging his faith back in his hometown of Birmingham. He went on to serve as a chaplain and mentor to young men, including those on the Woodlawn High School football team, and later served as an Alabama state senator.

But his biggest job was playing the role of dad to his two boys, Andy and Jon. It was during their formative years, when their bedtime stories consisted of hearing about the adventures of the Woodlawn football team and watching Hank act out all the different parts, that the seeds of the future were planted in their hearts. Before they were teenagers, they told Hank God was calling them to make movies—so he bought them a camera.

The decades passed, and the boys followed in their father’s footsteps of faith—and his love of football and stories. They interned briefly at a local TV station, but they weren’t there long: At the age of 15, Jon received a call from ESPN to fill in for an ill cameraman. The network called him back again later, and it wasn’t long before he and Andy were sideline regulars.

In 2002, after building an impressive portfolio filming football for several major networks, Jon and Andy started their own production company. Soon they were finding success directing music videos, producing concerts and television programs for influential artists like Amy Grant, Michael W. Smith and Casting Crowns. In 2010, they produced their first feature film: October Baby, a pro-life story about a girl who finds out she’s the adopted survivor of a failed abortion. In 2014, they directed the family comedy Moms’ Night Out, starring Sean Astin (Rudy, Lord of the Rings) and Patricia Heaton (Everybody Loves Raymond).

With Woodlawn, the Erwins return to their personal and professional roots. It opens in theaters nationwide on Oct. 16.

“The reality is that culture idolizes athletes and movie stars, and we’ve gotta be involved in that space,” Jon says. “Football is a great way to share the Gospel and a great way to reach people that might not ever go to church. I want to send a message, but I also want to entertain. We’re being culturally outgunned about a hundred to one. So it’s a gut check. How much do we care? Woodlawn is a $25 million (production) bet. That seems like a lot of money, but it’s a third of what (the producers of) 50 Shades of Grey spent to reach a generation. It’s scary.”

Changing a Culture

While the early 1970s are most closely associated with free love, bad fashion and war protests, there was another figure that was sweeping the nation at the time: Jesus.

The Jesus People Movement, which started on the West Coast in the late 1960s, saw millions of lives transformed through New Testament Christianity—including healings and the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Explo ’72, which featured leaders like Billy Graham and Bill Bright ( the founder of Campus Crusade for Christ, or Cru), was its zenith, with more than 80,000 young people coming together in Dallas to arm themselves with the tools of effective evangelism.

Hank Erwin was there, too. By 1973, he was working with a sports ministry led by Birmingham evangelist Wales Goebel—the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA).

Even under ideal conditions, witnessing to others can seem daunting. But this wasn’t like going door to door with pamphlets: Erwin and Goebel intended to insert themselves right into the middle of the hate, mistrust and fear that had gripped the town because they knew that’s where God would do His best work.

The Woodlawn High School football team was a microcosm of Birmingham as a whole—blacks and whites forced to coexist, unable to find common ground, often with violent consequences.

“When I went in there, Woodlawn was a great cauldron of turmoil,” Erwin recalls. “There’s a great depiction of it in the film. Coaches hated players, players hated coaches, whites hated blacks, blacks hated whites. It really was a powder keg.”

But when nearly every player on the team turned his life over to Christ in one night during a meeting in the school gym—including newcomer Tony Nathan, who would go on to play at the University of Alabama, then nine seasons with the Miami Dolphins—something else exploded: Love.

“When Jesus changed the lives of those players, their hostility changed dramatically,” says Erwin.

“Wales basically told his testimony of his wrecked background, a tough home, hate, bitterness and how he went through the early part of his life in and out of trouble. His life story connected with so many of those athletes who were going through such upheaval in their own lives. He told them how Christ had changed his life and how his life had been so improved and basically wove that into where they were. ‘Here’s your opportunity,’ he told them. ‘Change your life today.’ They were all searching for a way to find an end to all of it and they didn’t have anything to lose. So he said, ‘Let’s try Jesus.’

 “I expected one or two players to come down there, maybe,” he continues. “But every player came down and knelt on that basketball court, and I was just floored because I never expected that. And they did it with commitment. It became a group of people that started loving on one another. There was fellowship and forgiveness—a complete 180-degree turn in the mentality of the team.”

And what about that team on the field, by the way? By any measure, it was made up of players of average size and ability. But after that pivotal night in the gym, they went on to greatly exceed the expectations of the staff—and more importantly, the community, which began rallying around them. Coach Tandy Geralds, an atheist who found himself wanting “what his players have,” surrendered his life to Christ as well. The team then shared its “secret” with the members of their crosstown rival, Banks.

Hate was replaced with love, fear gave way to understanding and in a dramatic reversal, Birmingham was on its way to shaking the ugly moniker “Bombingham” bestowed as a result of race-driven violence in the late 1960s.

Picking up where Goebel left off, Erwin stayed on as the team chaplain to help teach the kids “how to walk with the Lord as athletes.” Sean Astin, who plays a composite of Erwin and Goebel, says it was easy to step into the shoes of someone so sold out to his cause.

“When you’re committed to the idea that God is working through you, then it’s easy to be bold,” Astin explains. “When you say, ‘Allow me to be an instrument of Your will, God,’ you have to temper your own hubris with the importance of what you’re saying.

“Hank realizes he’s doing what God’s plan for his life is. So he’s unabashed. He’s unapologetic about it.”

Producing a Miracle

Football in the cold hurts. Joints stiffen in the seconds between plays, fingers become fragile and embrittled. Every collision at the line of scrimmage seems a gamble with skeletal integrity. But on the gridiron, you persist, even when—especially when—the camera is rolling. And last year, while the cast and crew of Woodlawn were submitting themselves to long hours in Birmingham’s frigid winter rains to tell a story long untold, the cities of Ferguson, Mo., and Baltimore, Md., burned.

The embers from the decades-old unrest depicted in this film, it turns out, had found new fuel in a more contemporary setting—heightening the stakes for a nation sorely in need its own revival story.

While the Erwin brothers felt for some time that they were simply marching their idea forward, at many times to great professional peril, it soon became clear to them that God had distinct plans for Woodlawn.

“In art, timing is everything,” says Jon. “We had no idea Ferguson and Baltimore would be happening because we had already stepped out in faith. We knew we had to make this movie, but now there was this sense of urgency about it.”

The Erwins took great pains to ensure that the story was as authentic as possible. They hired stunt coordinator Mark Ellis—who had previously drawn up the sports action for such films as The Dark Knight Rises, Any Given Sunday and Jerry Maguire —to make sure the football shots were as intense and realistic as possible.

Newcomer Caleb Castille, 23, who is making his feature film debut in the role of Tony Nathan, is a former University of Alabama cornerback with two national championships under his belt—but nothing prepared him for how football works on the big screen.

“In a movie, a five-second play will last for 12 seconds, and you have to do it until they get the right cut,” he says. “It’s not as fun as it sounds. There were times when guys were going to the emergency room. We’d start filming at 5:30 at night and would end around 6 a.m. for five weeks straight, with rain falling on us from 200 feet while it was 27 degrees.”

But that’s the way the Erwins wanted it. Gritty realism at all costs.

Besides the scene where the team answers the altar call, the faith element of the movie is most masterfully illustrated in one depicting Geralds’ baptism in an all-black church. Thanks to a journal Geralds kept before he passed away from cancer in 2003, Australian actor Nic Bishop (perhaps best known to American audiences for his role on the USA Network’s Covert Affairs), 42, knew how important the scene would be; the lines he delivers in the film came straight from the journal.

“I walked into it knowing that there was an authenticity and weight that I needed to embrace in order to do this justice,” says Bishop. “White guy, white family walking into a black church and interrupting the proceedings to then talk about his own personal journey? Very bold and very brave. To do it right, you’ve gotta kinda jump in boots and all. You have to try to put yourself in those shoes.”

Like any good actor, Bishop fed off the energy and conviction of his fellow performers—who, in this case, were portraying a few dozen loving and charismatic parishioners. After the scene wrapped, Bishop approached co-director Andy Erwin.

“I said, ‘Those actors were really fantastic,’ and Andy told me that they weren’t extras and that this was their church! I’m glad he didn’t tell me that at the beginning of the scene or else I would have been more petrified.”

The change in Geralds, Bishops adds, was profound.

“When he discovers his faith and he discovers there is something bigger than all of us, he gives over the control that he was holding on to so tightly,” he says. “A weight is lifted off his shoulders; he doesn’t have to control everything.”

While they could have chosen any backdrop for the key football scenes, the Erwins secured Legion Field—the place where Woodlawn and Banks faced off to determine which of them would play in the 1974 state high school football playoffs. It’s still considered the biggest high school football game ever played in Alabama: A capacity crowd of 42,000 raucous spectators filled the stands that night, with 20,000 more turned away at the gates.


Renewed unrest on the first anniversary of the protests in Ferguson this August crystallized the need for the movie’s message of social repair. And while politicians fumble over themselves to legislate calm in their communities, it’s clear to the filmmakers—and, they hope, audiences—what the real solution is.

“I have never felt the desperation that I feel now,” Jon says. “You have a generation begging for Christ, and they just don’t know it yet. Woodlawn is about a team that made a decision to love God and love each other that had radical consequences in their community. We’re hoping to have teams all over the country see it and make a commitment.”

A desegregated school on the mend. A community returning to harmony. The dramatic nature of this story would be easy to dismiss as Christian propaganda if it weren’t so steeped in truth. With Woodlawn, the Erwin brothers hope to plant the seeds of revival now, to be sown in the years ahead.

“I’m passionate about the truth that the only way to overcome hate is by a greater law, and that’s love and forgiveness,” says Andy. “And Jesus is the ultimate way to receive and give both love and forgiveness.”

Hank Erwin agrees.

“The American landscape is very fractured and continuing to peel away, and I don’t think we have much time left,” he says. “We may soon be beyond an opportunity to turn it around. If it can happen in a football team, it can happen in a community. It’s not beyond the God’s power to make it happen in our country but it starts with us taking the first step. He’s waiting on us.”

Sidebar: An Act of Faith

In his view, Caleb Castille wasn’t cast for the crucial role of Tony Nathan in Woodlawn; he was called to it.

After winning two national championships as a defensive back for the University of Alabama in 2011 and 2012, Castille got into acting. He worked on a handful of commercials and music videos—but breaking into the big-screen business was another story.

“I had some opportunities for other films, but I felt like they weren’t for me,” he tells Citizen. “I felt like I might have to compromise in what I believe. So when Woodlawn came along, I was just ready.”

If the role had come along a year earlier, Castille says, that may not have been the case. Though he had grown up in a Christian household in Birmingham, he had grown distant from his faith. “I was dealing with being a young man caught up in the college life, being an athlete,” he says. “Like I was trying to live a double life. I was fully immersed in the world and in a relationship with my girlfriend that was not pleasing to the Lord.”

That left him adrift and unfulfilled.

“Looking back on that time now and talking with certain people, I realize that I was dealing with depression,” he says. “I was not happy at all. I was trying to find ways to fill all these gaps with everything else.”

Exhausted and desperate, Castille rededicated his life to the Lord shortly before hearing about Woodlawn last September. “I just decided that Jesus Christ was going to be at the head of my life,” he says. “I knew I had nothing else to lose and just went all in!”

So when Woodlawn came along, he saw a great story with a faith element that he could throw himself into without any moral reservations. He took to reading the script every day, believing fully that the role of Tony Nathan was his to lose. With each reading, he felt even more connected to Nathan—the introverted running back, also a Birmingham native, who becomes the breakout star of the team and a local hero—and even more confident about claiming the part.

“I said to God, ‘I don’t know what You’re doing, but this is my movie.’ I just felt so strongly about it, I prayed about it every single day.”

But somehow, the crew never saw his audition tape, and a British actor was selected to play Nathan. However, Castille was cast as an extra, and so impressed co-directors Jon and Andy Erwin with his real-life football skills that they promoted him to the role of chief stunt double for their lead actor.

Four days before filming was scheduled to start, the actor portraying Nathan ran into trouble with his work visa, and the Erwins had to scramble to replace him. The film’s football coordinator, Mark Ellis, urged them to check out Castille’s audition tape (finally)—and they were sold.

“Casting Caleb Castille was the most spiritual moment I’ve ever had in my film career,” Jon Erwin says simply.

For Castille, despite the last-minute shake-up, it was somehow less dramatic. “I was just believing for this thing, way out before this happened,” he says. “Every day until production, I read the script. People think it’s crazy but I think God put that on my heart to do. So by the time I got that call, I was ready. I completely believed in the story. Then I crammed three or four nights really trying to develop this character.”

And he is seizing the moment to point people to Jesus. “In our world, unbelief is a trend that’s quickly fading,” he says. “People are searching for truth and light, and they’ll look for it wherever they can find it.”

This month, he hopes they find it in Woodlawn.

© 2015 Focus on the Family. Originally published in the September, 2015 issue of Citizen magazine.