Best-selling Culver native’s latest book part of new ‘Woodlawn’ movie

Jeff Kenney
Citizen editor

If the story of Culver native and bestselling author/ESPN anchor Mark Schlabach's success felt almost too good to be true before, the ante has been upped this fall.

The movie "Woodlawn," whose story wraps around a book (of the same name) Schlabach spent around a year researching, is in theaters across the country, has earned Rotten Tomatoes ratings in the 80s and 90s, and includes stars like Jon Voight and C. Thomas Howell.

In many ways, it's a project which seems almost tailor-made for Schlabach, whose number one New York Times bestsellers have included books on former Florida State Seminoles Bobby Bowden and the Robertson family of "Duck Dynasty" fame (his initial one-book deal turned into five books total on the subject, with three sharing bestselling status on the list simultaneously at one point).

Clearly there's a perfect match in the sports theme central to the story of "Woodlawn," which tells the story of Tony Nathan, the first African-American student to integrate the Woodlawn High School football team in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1973, and who went on to incredible gridiron success and the largest high school football game ever played in the city.

There's also a predominant theme of faith in the film, as evangelist Hank Erwin helps transform the team's dynamic by calling students to faith and forgiveness. In fact, Erwin's sons, Jon and Andrew Erwin (best known for the movie's "October Baby" and "Mom's Night Out"), are writers and directors of the film. Andy Erwin had been a college football camera man with ESPN (a background Schlabach says has borne fruit in some of the best action scenes on the football field he's seen in a movie), which helped bring Schlabach into the equation.

He notes he was asked to research and write the book at the outset of the movie project, both to help flesh out the details of the story for readers (which meant interviewing 30 to 50 former students of Woodlawn and rival Banks High School) , and to generate a print project to undergird the release of the film. Todd Geralds, son of Woodlawn coach at the time Tandy Geralds, was also brought into the project.

Nathan, says Schlabach, "was a hell of a football player," having joined the Woodlawn team in 1971 as a freshman.

"He was met with a lot of prejudice from his teammates and even coaches," says Schlabach, though once he was moved from his team position as a safety to that of tailback, he was "an instant superstar," eventually helping lead the team to an undefeated season in 1974 and squaring off against Alabama's Banks High School before a game attended by a record 44,000 fans, the largest crowd to attend a high school football matchup in the US at the time.

All of this was predicated, however, by a visit to Woodlawn by an evangelist whose appeal to students led to a massive number of conversions, a new unity among students and football players, and the placement of Erwin at the school as chaplain for the next three years.

Schlabach says the book is "hopefully a good historical account of what happened. It has a really good message but it was a really bad time to be at Woodlawn. There was violence nearly every day and police with dogs in the hallways."

Schlabach adds it's "kind of ironic (that the book and movie hit) when we're going through the same thing all over again as we did in the late 1960s and early 1970s. There's a lot of racial division in America; here we are at the same point."

The movie -- which Schlabach believes was the highest-budgeted Christian film to date -- came out last month and exceeded expectations in terms of box office and critical success.

Nor has Mark Schlabach been idle between his "Duck Dynasty" success and work on "Woodlawn." He notes he wrote a book called, "Death Row Chaplain" about Earl Smith, a California death row chaplain at San Quentin, a former gang member shot six times and left for dead (he went on to become the team chaplain for the San Francisco 49ers).
ESPN, of course, is still Schlabach's primary employer, though he says he's spending less time on game coverage and more on investigative and feature reporting, though his popular "Roundup" column gets plenty of hits each Saturday night.

"The most important thing is, it's still fun," says Schlabach, who grew up in Culver and attended Culver Elementary School before moving to Georgia with his family. In fact, he told The Culver Citizen in 2009 that he and his wife, when searching for a place for their family to live, sought a place like Culver, which he visits on occasion when he's in the area.

“I couldn’t have asked for a better childhood than growing up there,” he said.

Read past articles on Mark Schlabach's writing/broadcasting legacy here: