by Patrick Novecosky
BEVERLY HILLS, CALIF. (Sept. 14, 2015) — Good movies get me pumped — especially guy movies. James Bond, Indiana Jones, Rocky Balboa, and Chris Gardner (deftly played by Will Smith in The Pursuit of Happyness). These are characters that make me want to get off the couch and save the world — or at least make it a better place.
For me, few sports films fit into that category. Exceptions: the first and last in the Rocky franchise (Creed, releasing in November looks promising), Rudy, Chariots of Fire, Miracle, and Field of Dreams. Despite the fact that most professional athletes are men of faith, there are relatively few faith-focused sports films. Recent years have given us When the Game Stands Tall (Jim Caviezel), Facing the Giants, and Soul Surfer.
Last night (Sunday), I finished a press screener for a film that should rank as the best sports faith film of all time — and perhaps challenge as one of the best sports films (secular or Christian) to ever hit the silver screen.
Woodlawn (Jon Voight, Sean Astin, Nic Bishop) tells the true story of Tony Nathan, a superbly talented running back in 1973 playing for the newly desegregated Woodlawn High School in Birmingham, Ala. The future Alabama Crimson Tide all-star went on to play for the Miami Dolphins from 1979-1987.
As cross burnings and riots erupt in the city, Tandy Gerelds, the Woodlawn Colonels’ football coach, struggles to ease racial tensions between his players. It’s only when Gerelds allows Hank, a self-styled evangelist, to speak to his team that real change begins.
Hank (Sean Astin), who had a radical conversion to Christ during a Billy Graham event a year earlier, tells the players a “better way” is possible through following Jesus. More than 40 players, nearly the entire team, black and white, give their lives to Christ. A ripple effect challenges the entire team, school, community and opposing teams.
The film culminates in high school football history. An estimated 42,000 fans turned out to watch the No. 1-ranked Banks Jets defeat the No. 4 Woodlawn Colonels 18 – 7 at Legion Field in Birmingham on Nov. 8, 1974. Woodlawn featured running back Tony Nathan and Banks had Jeff Rutledge at quarterback. Woodlawn features some real footage of the historic game.
If you’ve read this far, you have questions. Why is Jon Voight in the headline and why is the dateline Beverly Hills? In Woodlawn, Voight plays legendary University of Alabama football coach Bear Bryant. Although his is a relatively small role, he lends his sizable talent to a film that has few big-name stars. The other being Sean Astin.
Stay with me. Last year, a conference I was assisting with had booked Gary Sinise. At the 11th hour, Sinise and two other notable celebrities bailed. Left in a lurch, our team started making calls. One of the names that surfaced was Voight’s. After making a few calls to Hollywood friends, I got an e-mail address and agency contact info. I passed it on to our organizing committee. Nothing came of it because Voight was working on a film.
This morning, still thinking about Woodlawn (which I finished watching the night before), I spotted Voight’s e-mail address in my contacts list. I shot him a quick two-sentence email:
Jon: I just saw a preview of WOODLAWN. Thanks for lending your talent to such an impressive and important film. You remain in my prayers,
And I included my full contact information. Almost exactly 90 minutes later, my cell phone rang. It came up as a 310 area code in Beverly Hills. I’ve been getting pre-recorded calls that are apparently from my “cell phone provider,” so I almost let it go to voicemail. I’m glad I didn’t.
“Hi. This is Jon Voight. Do we know each other?” he asked.
Yeah. I almost dropped the phone to the floor … right beside my jaw. It’s not often (NEVER) that a Hollywood legend rings me up, let alone an Academy Award-winning actor (he won Best Actor Oscar for his role in Coming Home, 1978).
I regained my composure and explained who I was and how I got his e-mail (which I expected would go right to his publicist). He asked where I saw the film, and I told him. I also mentioned that I had met Woodlawn writer/producers Jon and Andrew Irwin on the set of Moms’ Night Out a few years ago. We chatted about Woodlawn and the rise of recent faith films like War Room and 90 Minutes in Heaven.
ANGELINA JOLIE testifies before the House of Lords in London on Sept. 8, 2015
Almost 10 minutes into the the call, he asks, “So, how’s your life. How are you?” Jon Voight was interviewing me now! Wow. I told him a few of my greatest blessings: My wife, five children, remarkable job.
Then I interjected and told him that I was quite impressed with his daughter. Yeah, he’s Angelina Jolie‘s dad. She testified before the House of Lords in London last week, blasting ISIS for its systematic rape of women in its reign of terror.
“The most important thing is to understand what it’s not: It’s not sexual. It’s a violent, brutal, terrorizing weapon and it is used, unfortunately, everywhere,” she said.
I told her father that he should continue to encourage her to bravely stand up for important issues like this. He assured me that he would. And I assured him that I’d keep him in my prayers.
Who knows, maybe we’ll bump into each other again sometime. After all, as I just learned, the world is a really a pretty small place.
WOODLAWN OPENS NATIONWIDE ON OCTOBER 16. See it. You won’t be disappointed.
PATRICK NOVECOSKY is a speaker, Catholic journalist, editor of this blog, and the editor-in-chief of Legatus magazine.