Palm Beach County residents are familiar with the presence of well-known figures living around them. Attorney and member of First Presbyterian church in North Palm Beach, Tom Miller and his family have spent the past few months in the limelight due to their direct connections to the recent movie Woodlawn.

The movie follows the African-American running back, Tony Nathan at Woodlawn high school amidst racism in Birmingham, Alabama, and the radical victory their team experienced through unity and faith in Jesus Christ.

Scene from the Movie, Woodlawn
Scene from the Movie, Woodlawn

Miller said his sister, Cathy Miller Benton, was involved in the Tri-Hi-Y service club, when a group of them went to Expo ’72 and came back on fire for Jesus.

“Cathy’s boyfriend, Skip Benton, who is now her husband, was a football player on the [Woodlawn] team,” he said. “They got involved in Campus Life, and so that’s how it got started.”   According to Cathy, Skip was Tony Nathan’s offensive right guard.

After the players came to Christ, any racial tension on the team disappeared. Any residing racism in the school never included the players, said Benton, the former Woodlawn right guard,

The racial tensions provide a backdrop for the movie and the real life events, which were overcome with the start of first Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) meetings.

The Woodlawn high school football team did not have any African-American players in 1969, when Miller’s oldest brother, Joey, played on the team.

“People thought [African-Americans] were pretty good at baseball, but they weren’t any good at football and that’s what people thought,” Miller said.

Racial tension rose in 1972, which was felt throughout the school and the football team.

“Because of the racial problems on the team, Joey said they didn’t really play as a team,” he said. “They ended up six and four [in the 1972 season].”

At one point, the tensions boiled over causing the school to shutdown for a few days. Tom Miller said his brother remembered being only one of two students in a class, because the parents were too afraid to send their children to school.

These events transpired before the fall of 1973.

In August of 1973, the team would begin a change that would be felt throughout the community.

Wales Goebel was a man who found his mission for God to speak to different high schools about Jesus Christ. He was invited to speak to the team during their first football camp of the season, where the players spent a week together, sleeping in the gym.

Skip Benton was a part of the team when Goebel spoke. He was in his senior year at Woodlawn and played at the right guard position on the offensive line.

According to Benton, they sat in the bleachers in the gym as Goebel spoke.

Woodlawn Football star, Tony Nathan, played by newcomer, Caleb Castille.
Woodlawn Football star, Tony Nathan, played by newcomer, Caleb Castille.

“Are you confident you are going to Heaven, if you die today?” Benton recalled in his own words of what the speaker said.

Forty-six players made up the team and were all in the bleachers.

“He had us close our eyes like preachers normally do and asked us to come down to him,” he said. “You could hear a lot of people moving around.”

When they opened their eyes, only about six players remained in the bleachers with the rest next to Goebel, who had decided to either follow Christ or rededicate their lives to Him. Benton said those remaining were already Christians and chose not to rededicate their lives.

After the players came to Christ, any racial tension on the team disappeared. Any residing racism in the school never included the players, according to the former Woodlawn right guard.

God uses the ordinary commitments of His people to do extraordinary things,” Benton said as a summary of Woodlawn.

“They lost the very first game [of the 1973 season] 7-to-3 to Ensley,” Miller said.

The season did not begin until September. Benton said the team was challenged with the loss being a test after having committed their lives to Christ in August.

According to Miller, the African-American running back Nathan was one of the Christian leaders on the team. He led the team as they began to pray on the field during timeouts.

He remembered controversy about the praying through the newspapers.

“There was controversy whether they were praying for victory or praying to do their best and that God would be glorified,” Miller said.

Benton recalled the prayers on the field as well.

“I don’t know about the other guys, but I didn’t pray to win games, but to show Christ,” he said.

Benton said something obvious was happening at Woodlawn, among the team, but also the school.

“It spread from the football team to the high school, then the community,” he said.

During the 1973 season, the players would attend Bible studies at homes in the community as a part of FCA meetings.

“[Head coach Tandy] Gerelds came to the house, because he thought he would come just to see what all these guys were doing after they had all become Christians,” Miller said.

Team Chaplain, Hank Erwin, played by Sean Astin
Team Chaplain, Hank Erwin, played by Sean Astin

As depicted in the movie, Gerelds came to Sarah Miller’s home, who was Tom Miller’s mother, where the first FCA meetings were held in the area.

Benton said Gereld accepted Christ at the meeting he attended. Beforehand, he had been a good man, but never chose to follow God.

He said the message of the story of Woodlawn transcends the racism that serves as a backdrop. The story is still relevant to people now, in the unity of our community and in their choices through Christ.

“God uses the ordinary commitments of His people to do extraordinary things,” Benton said as a summary of Woodlawn.

Todd Gerelds, Tandy Gereld’s son, first wrote about the events that occurred at the school first as a book entitled Woodlawn: One Hope. One Dream. One Way.

Benton said he was humbled when he found out there would be a movie. He said the movie was very accurate in its depiction of what happened.

“You don’t realize the effects of your life five, ten, fifteen years down the road,” he said.

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Jeremiah Sater is a graduate of Palm Beach Atlantic University, West Palm Beach, FLA. He earned his Bachelor of Arts in journalism Magna Cum Laude. He earned his Associates of Arts Degree in English in 2013 from Hagerstown Community College with high honors.

2 COMMENTS

  1. There were some inaccuracies in the movie. If memory serves me correctly, one was that Tony was our first black player. Though one of the first, I think Steve Washington was actually first, but the movie says “based on a true story” and I suppose some of the inacurracies point to a larger truth. The brick didn’t go through the window, but there were bricks, and worse, other places.
    I recall a personal and formative experience at WHS. In a more intimate but less dramatic way, I learned a life-lesson. I think of it every time I consider injustice. This experience defined the word and opened my heart to the plight of my classmates.
    Until a certain moment in time, I had empathized, but never fully understood what it must feel like to be deserving of something but denied it because of the color of your skin.
    I was only 17. I was a junior at Woodlawn and though I’d tried out for cheerleader and was capable, I hadn’t made the squad because of the academic criteria. Knowing it was my last chance, I raised my grades to standard and worked tirelessly and against many odds to try and earn a position on the 9 member squad. The day of reckoning arrived and we’d all done our best. The judges had conferred and were standing before us with their choices for the new cheerleaders for the 1971-72 WHS squad. The graduating seniors took the list, and as tradition dictated, would be the ones to “tap” the new girls. Hundreds of hopefuls sat, cross-legged on the gym floor. We were distanced so that the “tappers” could weave in and out amongst us and in surprise attacks from the rear, they’d grab the new cheerleaders with squeals and hugs. Tension mounted and at last it was time to tap cheerleader number 9. My heart raced. I knew I had it. I believed with all my heart that I was going to be the next one to capture the megaphone. But to my shock, and the shock of all others, an African-American by the name of Sheila Willis, was welcomed into the new squad. There fell over the crowd an errie and deafening silence. The “tappers” slowly marched away from the mass of girls. Suddenly, turned and raced to attack me with the squeals of delight they’d heaped on all the others. I’d made the squad! There would be ten of us. Of course, that made it clear to some that a position had been added to project better representation of our “new” student body. I will never know that for sure because it might just as easily been a show of affirmation for a child who was academically challenged. The cheerleading sponsors had seen my efforts and had known my struggles. Regardless, I was on Cloud 9! It was only later that night, as I was lying in bed, that I recalled feelings I’ve never forgotten. In those brief moments when I sat, defeated, on the floor, I was devastated. I was broken and in fact, angry to think that all my hard work, ability and desire was crushed because….of….the color of my skin. I can’t say with certainty, but it sure seemed that way through my naive eyes. I had thought, in those moments, that by embracing our first African- American, I, myself had been booted out of the vision. Yet, that night, I realized that in those few moments, I’d felt the injustice that my black friends had felt their ENTIRE lives. I knew for myself, then, what this historical movement was all about.
    Sheila stood next to me in the line-up and we had the time of our lives! I’ve thought of her over the years and I wonder how she got on in life. She was a happy, loving, delightful human being and every bit as capable of her place on the squad as any of the rest of us. When she jumped, she soared. She connected with the crowd and her smile was contagious. Her heart, spirited. I hope she continued to soar and affect others for good in every other endeavor of her life.

    • This is a beautiful story, Vivienne. Thank you so much for sharing your experience and for giving us a glimpse of what racism feels like from both sides.

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