We’ve seen the story before: a white coach turns around a failing inner-city football team and, in the process, helps ease racial tensions in his community. This time the film is Undefeated, a documentary about three black players from North Memphis, Tennessee, and their volunteer coach Bill Courtney. The film won Best Documentary at the Academy Awards last Sunday night (snagging an Oscar for executive producer Sean “P.Diddy” Combs), but while Courtney is humbled by the honor, he isn’t all that impressed and says he didn’t set out to save anybody. UrbanFaith talked to this no-nonsense coach about his faith, his motives, and his goals for working with the team. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
UrbanFaith: Inbefore Undefeated won the Academy Award, you said if the film defines you or the players featured in it, or if it is the best thing that ever happened to any of you, you’ve got real problems. How do you feel now that it’s won?
Bill Courtney: I feel the same way. The film winning a little 14-inch gold statue doesn’t make it any better or worse than it was before it won it. It’s a great honor and it’s humbling. In Hollywood, societal statements or environmental statements are the types of things that are typically celebrated, so when a film about perseverance and kids wins, it speaks to the power of the film. I think it’s great, but it doesn’t define us and it cannot define us. What needs to define us is the experience that we had together so that when we go on in our lives 20 years from now, and we’re raising families, having graduated from college, and have jobs, that’s what needs to define us, not a moment in time that was captured on film. Don’t take me wrong. It’s humbling. It’s a wonderful experience and we should allow ourselves to enjoy it, but if something like that defines you, you start taking yourself too seriously and that’s a pretty tough road to hoe.
An employee of yours had asked for time off to cook pre-game meals with his Sunday school class for an inner-city football team and you told him about Manassas High School, which is down the road from your lumber company. He then told the Manassas team about you and that’s how you got involved. Did faith play a role in your involvement too?
Courtney: Faith plays a role in everything I do. I’m a Christian. It’s my job to be as Christ-like as I possibly can. I sin daily. Thank goodness for forgiveness; otherwise my life would be in shambles. Certainly faith played a role in it, because I feel compelled and I feel that it’s all of our calling to help out those in the greatest need. These kids were completely deficient in a number of basic tenets and fundamentals that I want my own children raised with. The need was there and it was the most rewarding experience of my life to be able to share my life with them. It’s inspirational that they shared their lives with me. I don’t think they would have been welcomed into my neighborhood nearly as quickly and generously as they welcomed me into theirs.
What did you learn from these young men who came from a different culture and a different racial background than you?
Courtney: The racial thing didn’t really have anything to do with it. I didn’t think of them as my black players and they didn’t think of me as the white coach. I know society is going to look at this film and want to have that conversation. It had nothing to do with our relationship. Therefore, I don’t have anything to say about it.
With regard to what I learned from them, prior to my experience with them, I probably would have had the attitude that this is a free country. My mom and dad were divorced early. I grew up with very little and I made it, so if you don’t make it, it’s your own fault. Frankly, that’s a lie. That’s something we want to tell ourselves to make ourselves feel good. The truth is the playing field isn’t level. When children grow up having seen perpetual generations that have no hope and feel lost, and feel like they’re not even part of society, that’s what they’re going to feel and grow up doing. All the money and governmental programs and everything in the world simply does not replace true love, care, and compassion, and true mentorship.
What they taught me was that no matter what you’re circumstances are, when you try to do the right things, and you work toward commitment and discipline, and you work on your own soul and character, then amazing things can happen. I will forever be indebted to those kids and that community for welcoming me and accepting me.
You’ve said that football doesn’t build character, it reveals character, and that if a person’s foundation is football, they’re going to fall on their behind.
Courtney: I don’t think something as trivial as a game builds character. You build your own character when you build a foundation of the tenets you want to make yourself. Things like football, a job, a marriage—the real things in life are what reveal your character. If you think football is going to help you to rise up above your circumstances and have a great life, I think you’re wrong. You can’t stand on a football. Football cannot be a foundation for anything. Your foundation has to be your discipline and your commitment. If you build your foundation on those principles, then you can hold 20 footballs over your head all day long.
In the MSN interview, you talked about the servant leadership of a coach you had growing up who made seniors get water for the team and things like that instead of making freshman do it, as is customary. Is Christ-like servant leadership something you taught your players and modeled for them?
Courtney: I believe that Christ lived on this earth and gave his life so that I could be forgiven for the things I do on a daily basis that I’m ashamed of. So, when I believe the ruler of the universe served me, I pretty much feel like it’s my responsibility to serve everyone I can. In serving, you then lead, because you give an example to people of a way to lead your life that is more selfless than self-serving. I didn’t say that, because it comes off self-serving if you say, “Hey, look at me.” I just did it. My belief is: I can’t save anybody—I can’t save anybody from circumstances; I can’t save anybody into a faith. It’s my job to introduce my faith and then let the Lord work his will the way he sees fit. The way you do that is you walk what you talk and do the very best you can to serve and to share what your life is about, if they ask. Hopefully from there, they find a place in their own lives to grow from that.