‘Faith, Family, Football’: Tim Tebow and Versatile Team Bring Sports Drama to Life
In theaters this weekend, Run the Race took a decade to produce. While Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow has quarterbacked recent media, a diverse creative team called the plays.
Whether at ESPN, Entertainment Tonight or People Magazine, right now Tim Tebow is everywhere. The former NFL quarterback-turned-pro-baseball player just entered spring training for the New York Mets, in hopes of making it beyond Triple-A this year.
The renewed attention comes as Tebow and his brother Robby are gearing up to release their first film, Run the Race, as executive producers. And they know many people find it easy to dismiss a faith-centered sports movie.
“Faith-based films can be put in a box and judged a certain way before anyone ever sees them,” says Robby Tebow. “As Christians, we should be held to the highest standards of production and storytelling. Why not do it with the best actors, who can deliver and tell a story the right way?”
Notable Hollywood stars surround the two brothers at the heart of their drama. Mykelti Williamson (Forrest Gump, Fences) portrays their coach, Hallmark star Kristoffer Polaha their long-absent alcoholic father, and Frances Fisher (Titanic) a godmother who offers wisdom.
“It’s not that I would do any faith movie — or any action movie, for that matter,” said Mario Van Peebles. Having starred in Ali opposite Will Smith, he plays a local pastor in Run the Race. “I have to read the script, talk to the filmmakers and dig what they’re doing.”
The veteran actor sees the sports drama appealing to a broad audience. “This story is inspirational and inclusive,” said Van Peebles, who spoke to media last week in Los Angeles along with other stars and producers of the independent film. “If you’re just speaking to people who look like you, talk like you and walk like you, you’re making a mistake.”
Though it started small, Run the Race expanded as diverse voices joined the film team.
Write What You Know
Jake McEntire grew up in Whitewright, Texas (population: 1,604) with his five brothers. As a young athlete, he aspired to escape anonymity through scholarship and stardom. It became the premise for his football drama grounded in America’s heartland.
“In Texas, it’s faith, family and football,” said McEntire, producer and co-writer of the film. “You can’t play football halfway — you’re going to war! It unites people emotionally and spiritually.”
Beyond gridiron action, the story focuses on two high school athletes who have the world stacked against them. “These two brothers don’t have a whole lot of money, but they have each other,” said McEntire. “They have a coach, their godmother, one has a girlfriend… that’s pretty much it. They are clinging to each other.”
He has spent 12 years bringing his story concept to theaters. In a time when superheroes and big budget spectacle rule the box office, Run the Race is countercultural. Rarely does a sports drama center on unknowns rather than the exploits of an acclaimed athlete or team.
“This is based on all the true stories of me, my brothers and our best friends,” said McEntire. “I would cherry-pick events in our lives and say: How terrible, I’m sorry that happened to you. Then I put that in the script.”
Recently, McEntire has worked in the Dallas area near his hometown. Starring in over 70 TV commercials and occasional movies, he made Hollywood connections and shared his vision.
Bringing A Team Together
“Our company bets on scripts and producers,” said Bill Reeves at the premiere. As president of The WTA Group, his firm worked to finance the indie film. “We’re not really about making stars in our business, rather about impact. Jake is the kind of guy who can make impact.”
Producers soon brought Chris Dowling onto the project — first to punch up the script with rewrites, then as director. “The beauty of collaboration is we all get to put our fingerprints on it to make it work,” said Dowling.
“If 17 people weighed in with different visions, it would fracture and feel inauthentic,” added the writer/director. “With this film, everybody got behind one vision and ran with it.”
They strived for Run the Race to reflect raw emotions and actual experiences. It aligned with what Tim Tebow and his brother wanted to see on-screen. “Growing up, Robby and I saw so many Christian movies our parents put in front of us,” said Tebow. “Characters prayed, then everything would be perfect. That’s not real life!”
Producer Darren Moorman helped fuse the versatile team, including the Tebow brothers. “Usually in movies, you end up working with artists,” said Moorman. “This one drew in a diverse group — including incredible athletes who have great reach in our culture. The team fit the story.”
With input from producers, Dowling layered the drama with relationships and motivations that shifted as it played out. Tim Tebow first saw an early draft in 2013, impressed enough to link arms with the project.
“Then on a trip to the Philippines, I read an updated version,” he recalled. “I was in the back of a Jeep and we were crying. If it did it to me multiple times, that’s a good script.”
Surprising Star Power, Unifying Faith
Several revisions later, producers shopped the script to actors. As with most independent films, stars had to agree to lower-than-typical rates.
“When you work on a movie like this, you’re not doing it for the money,” said Mario Van Peebles. “You’re not doing it for the catering, that’s for sure! You’re doing it for the heart.” Still taking on occasional roles, he has moved into directing TV shows such as Lost and Empire.
He explained why he believes in the story. “This movie is made to inspire, whether people are co-signed to specific faith doctrines or not,” said Van Peebles. “I played the pastor as a unifier — not a perfect character who is different from you, but a down-to-earth cat.”
He shares screen time with co-star Tanner Stine, whose character starts out self-absorbed. “All they’ve seen is this crappy life,” said Stine of the brothers. “Our mom is dying and dad trapped in addiction. You see how easy it would be for my guy to follow in the footsteps of his dad.”
In a scene that pivots the story, Van Peebles tells the two brothers how faith means nothing unless they live it out — lines the actor ad-libbed. “The script was like [insert speech here],” recalled Van Peebles. “Then Dowling said, ‘Action!’”
“I just did it off the cuff, riffing on how faith without action is rhetoric,” he said. “I’m proud to say it’s in the movie.”
Authentic, Up-Close Football
Most of Run the Race was shot in and around Birmingham, Alabama. In addition to the state’s tax incentives, director Chris Dowling said the South provided flexibility — a welcome change from working in Los Angeles.
“We’d be driving around with local police officers and ask: ‘Could we could set-up a quick scene right here?’” he recounted. “They’d turn on their lights and say: ‘Let’s do it.’ They’d block off the streets, and we got what we needed.”
Robby Tebow, who manages a sports promotion enterprise including his brother’s endorsements, joined the crew to keep an eye on the football action. “We’ve all seen movies with bad-looking jerseys, awful football collisions and stuff that doesn’t look real,” he said.
Dowling and his team arrived for their 22-day shoot in Bessemer, just outside Birmingham. In events producers call “miraculous,” the crew was given access to film a high school championship game with 800 people cheering in the stands.
Four camera crews captured the energy, on and off the football field at Bessemer Academy.
“All of our actors were in uniforms on the sidelines, running out on the field and into huddles,” recalled Dowling. “Then I noticed [Bessemer’s] stud quarterback, who was about to go to Mississippi State, wore #10. I asked the coach, ‘Our guy in the film wears #2, but he really looks like your quarterback…’”
The coach had his star player switch jerseys, and later Dowling intercut footage of the actual game into Run the Race.
“Real moments of fist-bumping and celebrating made it into the film,” said Dowling. “Certain scenes are almost a docudrama like Last Chance U because we stole a lot of shots from that championship game.”
Using Fame for Greater Good
The movie’s finale plays out on a larger stage: Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in Gainesville, Fla., home of the Florida Gators. University of Florida star alumnus Tim Tebow got the go-ahead to shoot scenes in front of nearly 90,000 fans.
“It helps to have a statue outside the stadium,” said his brother Robby. They filmed during the annual face-off between the Gators and their archrival, Florida State.
“For any Gators fan, that was the biggest game of the year,” said Tim Tebow. “We kind of hate Florida State. You only get one chance to run out of the tunnel in that game, as the band strikes up. To film it in an environment like that is really cool.”
Such experiences were in service of a larger purpose. “If a movie can make you think about God in your life afterward, then it’s a win,” said co-writer Jake McEntire. “It doesn’t have to be a faith-based film. It could be Braveheart or The Shawshank Redemption, movies that changed my life.”
Questions about the struggles of life persist in Run the Race, even when end credits roll. “You don’t want to trick or fool people into [faith],” said Tebow. “We were never told it would be perfect or easy. The ending will shock a lot of viewers, but it happens in real life.”
The Tebow brothers are noncommittal on future films, though another commitment — the celebrity athlete’s to his new fiancée — has made headlines worldwide. After years working to tell an exciting story in a cinematic experience, they have high hopes for Run the Race.
“I can’t go that many places, but a film goes to multiple countries so fast,” says Tebow. “It’s extremely powerful. Why not use that avenue for good?”