But while he helped the Dolphins make it to two Super Bowls and three AFC Championship Games as a dynamic rushing-receiving threat, what he did while at Woodlawn High School had more significance.
It was significant enough, in fact, to be one of the focal points of a motion picture coming out in October that will be entitled, simply, “Woodlawn.”
As the film’s associate producer, Joshua Walsh, told FOX, “The movie is based on the true story that happened in 1973, right when Woodlawn High School integrated for the first time. They'd integrated in the ’60s but not in a big way. I think 500 kids were shipped into the school and it was a tough time for Woodlawn. And this player emerged out of it, Tony Nathan. He was on the front page every day, he was a big name for Alabama and it helped unify the city.”
Nathan told The Finsiders the movie has brought back a lot of memories.
“It was during a time when people weren’t getting along very well, but as a football team we came together,” Nathan said. “They accepted me, I accepted them. Some did, some didn’t, but that’s life itself. Actually, it was very emotional for me to see it, to go back and say, well, gosh, that did happen. I actually went through that. It’s kind of hard to put into words, but it’s very emotional.”
Nathan is being played in the movie by Caleb Castille, a former walk-on at Nathan’s alma mater, the University of Alabama. Castille’s father, Jeremiah, was a defensive back at Alabama right after Nathan had left to join the Dolphins as a third-round draft pick.
Jon Voigt plays the role of legendary University of Alabama head coach Paul “Bear” Bryant, while Nic Bishop plays the role of Nathan’s high school coach, Tandy Gerelds.
Nathan once said it was Gerelds who talked him out of quitting football and it was Gerelds who inspired his own son, Todd, to write the book on which the movie is based.
“That’s where it all stemmed from,” Nathan told The Finsiders. “His son started writing a book and was interviewing the players that were there at that time and the relationship they had with him. My relationship with him, he was like my father in high school, like a father at school. He took care of me, he kept me out of trouble, which during that time there was a little racial tension. He would actually come to my homeroom class once I got marked present, walked me back down to the gym and said, look, you just hang out here. When everything is settled down in the room, everybody goes where they gotta go, then I would go to class.
“He kind of took the reins from when I left home, from my father. He took the reins and took care of me in high school. He saw something, I guess. I don’t know. He saw something in me that he felt like I was his child. I appreciate him doing that, God bless his soul. He was very instrumental in my life. He talked me through some things and got me to do some things that I didn’t think I could do or wanted to do or even thought about doing. It was all about him and his son writing a book, and it all stemmed from that.”
Nathan still wasn’t quite sure the project was legitimate when he was first approached about it.
That changed after a meeting with the film’s producers, brothers Jon and Andrew Erwin.
“When they actually first started doing it or started talking about doing it, it was like, umm, umm, really?” Nathan said. “I thought it was a joke. My friends have a great sense of humor. Most of my friends do. After talking to the young man, Todd, he was talking about the book itself. He brought these gentlemen, the Erwin brothers, to my house and I was like, OK, this is legit then. They actually want to do it. We sat down, we did interviews. They did footage of everything and talked to myself and my parents, my wife, and then went and got footage from when I played high school ball. And there it is. And it’s like, I’ve seen the trailers of it. It’s very touching.”
The movie, which includes a re-creation of the 1974 Alabama state championship game that remains the most-attended high school game in state history, is part of what has been a memorable year for Nathan.
In May, he fulfilled a promise he had made to Bryant at the end of his college career and earned his degree more than 36 years after leaving the University of Alabama.
“Like I say, this has been an outstanding, awesome year for me,” Nathan said. “It’s been unbelievable.”