Faith Motivates ‘Undefeated’ Coach

Faith Motivates ‘Undefeated’ Coach

MODELING SERVANT LEADERSHIP: Manassas High School coach Bill Courtney sought to teach more than football.

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: In an interview with MSN before 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.

Mo’Nique’s Victory Grew Out of Tragedy

Mo'Nique's Victory Grew Out of Tragedy for urban faithMo’Nique’s Oscar-winning performance in Precious came from a dark place in her family history. Say what you will about the actress and the movie, her Academy Award victory caps the unlikely rise of a black woman who turned personal tragedy into professional triumph.

Well, Mo’Nique did it.

The movie, Precious, for which she won the Academy Award for supporting actress, may have made us uncomfortable, but doggonit, Mo’Nique did it.

The sadistic way in which she’d make Precious, played by fellow Oscar nominee Gabourey Sidibe, wait on her like a slave and tell her that she wouldn’t amount anything. The pain and rage in her bloodshot eyes as her chapped lips sipped a cigarette bud revealing yellowed teeth. Mo’Nique, who broke through showbiz as a foul-mouth standup comedian, was absolutely believable as a dramatic actor.

And I’m sure she believed the Oscar would come.

By now you know Precious, based on the novel Push, is about an illiterate teen mom who triumphs after having been abused by just about everyone. She’s ridiculed at school and in her neighborhood. Family life is even worse. Her young child and newborn are from her father, who raped her. Her mother is arguably the most abusive and least sympathetic character in the movie. This is the role Mo’Nique worked into an award-winning performance.

The movie caused a stir, even anger, because it, yet again, put on display a highly dysfunctional black family. Even C. Jeffrey Wright, CEO of UrbanFaith’s parent company, chimed in about what many viewed as the movie’s lopsided portrayal of African American life. During the Oscar Night edition of The Barbara Walters Special, which aired before the 82nd Academy Awards, Mo’Nique addressed this. Abuse is “colorless” and that the actors just happened to be black, she said.

True, abuse and other dysfunctions exist in families of all ethnicities and races, but black dysfunction is too common in movies and throughout the media. This gives the impression that dysfunction is the only state of the black family. I realize family hell sells better at the box office, so I’d settle for more positive black characters in these same movies. Write in a black doctor who has it together, or an honest black business owner.

Truthfully, there are few families that are not dysfunctional and this is what many of us spend our careers — our lives — trying to overcome.

Mo’Nique’s Oscar winning-performance came from a dark place within her family. She was abused as a child. During the Walters interview, Mo’Nique discussed the sexual abuse she endured at the hands of an older brother beginning around age 7. Fear kept her from telling their parents until about age 15. Her brother went on to abuse someone else, and served prison time.

Mo’Nique modeled her Precious character after him. She told Walters that the last time they spoke and were together was as adults while she was in the hospital after birthing twins. Visiting, her brother picked up and held one of the babies in his arms. Bad move. I can only imagine the rage the welled inside Mo’Nique. She wasn’t specific about the encounter, but must’ve torn into him. With therapy, and the help of her husband, Mo’Nique released the burden, she said.

Faith is about believing deeply in what you can’t see despite the reasons to doubt that are before you. You can’t please God without it. As Mo’Nique’s name was announced as the winner, she paused and then stood and composed herself before heading to the stage. In her acceptance speech, she invoked the late Hattie McDaniel, the first black woman to win an Oscar back in 1940, and alluded to the politics that typically go along with being nominated for an Academy Award — politics that Mo’Nique boldly refused to partake in. It was at once clear that this Oscar victory — and her involvement in Precious — was much bigger than just playing a role in a movie. As I watched, I thought about all those rough times she must’ve endured, and perhaps, like Precious, how she might’ve wanted to give up. How Mo’Nique must’ve willed herself to focus not on the immediate trials in her personal life and career, but on the future rewards she envisioned.

You may not like her opinions or lifestyle choices, but Mo’Nique did it. She kept the faith.

“To every last person that celebrates a victory of being abused, and you can stand baby, congratulations,” she said backstage to the thank you cam. “…To the whole world I simply say I thank you and let’s start loving again, unconditionally.”

Now that’s a storyline we ought to be comfortable with.