Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Woodlawn, by Todd Gerelds

Tis the season for football, so how about an inspirational football movie?  In a few weeks Woodlawn will be released, bringing to the big screen the story of an Alabama high school football team in the 1970s.  In case the place and date don't click with you, this is at the time of school desegregation in one of the most racially divided parts of the country.  Woodlawn follows the desegregation of Woodlawn High School and the response of the football team.

The Woodlawn football coach, Tandy Gerelds, didn't set out to be a trailblazer or revolutionary.  He was just a guy who wanted to be a football coach.  In the book Woodlawn: One Hope. One Dream. One Way, Gerelds's son Todd Gerelds, with the help of veteran sports writer Mark Schlabach, writes about his father's life and legacy as an Alabama coaching legend.

Two things make the story of Woodlawn worth telling.  First of all, this team managed to come together and build camaraderie on and off the football field across the deep racial divides of Birmingham.  The white players and coaches, including Gerelds, had plenty of hesitation and resistance to playing with the black kids.  The black kids suffered not only the racism of the white kids and teachers at Woodlawn, but also rejection from blacks in their neighborhood.

The second part of the story is what makes the first part work.  Against Gerelds's better judgment, at the time, he allowed an evangelist to preach the gospel to the football team.  Virtually every one of them gave their lives to Christ.  From that point on, a new sense of unity emerged on the team.  And for many of the boys, it stuck!  Several became pastors and continued to walk with Jesus into adulthood.

The story of this football team is really inspiring.  It does feel a bit like those fictional stories, where once someone becomes a Christian or starts taking their Christian faith seriously, everything works out great (see Facing the Giants).  But Woodlawn is a true story, and, in fact, once the football players and coaches became Christians and committed to "playing for the Lord," they really started winning more games.

I am looking forward to seeing this movie.  The book is nicely told, but it felt a bit emotionally detached.  I wanted a bit more drama!  The book hints at the drama, and touches on the powerful changes in the kids' and coaches' lives, but maintains a feeling of viewing it all from a distance.  Once the stories from Woodlawn make it to film, I have a feeling the emotional impact will be stronger than the book.

Thanks to Edelweiss and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

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