Nathan had rushed for a go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter and was on the receiving end of Miami’s famed “87 circle curl lateral” touchdown play that came at the end of the first half. The trick play pulled the Dolphins to within 24-17 at the half after trailing 24-0 after the first quarter.
Miami eventually lost in overtime 41-38 in one of the NFL’s greatest games. In the locker room, a television reporter framed a question to Nathan. “Have you ever been involved in a game like this where you came back from such a big hole?”
Nathan looked at him and didn’t hesitate. “Sure. In high school and college,” he said, matter-of-factly.
The TV reporter was too stunned to ask a follow-up question. Lots of dead air at that point.
What was instructive is that Nathan wasn’t bragging. He was just stating a fact. Nathan, as a player and a man, always has been a humble guy.
And that’s what shines through in Nathan’s autobiography, “Touchdown Tony: Running With A Purpose” (Howard Books; hardback; $24; 238 pages). Nathan’s work ethic, faith and sense of purpose helped him through a difficult period in his hometown of Birmingham, Alabama, a city that came to symbolize segregation and racism during the 1960s.
Nathan’s story hit movie theaters in October when “Woodlawn” was released. That was Nathan’s high school in Birmingham, and the school retired his number earlier this season. Nathan reciprocated with a $25,000 scholarship donation to his alma mater.
“Touchdown Tony” is a book about breaking barriers, perseverance and handling difficult decisions with grace and class. He had many role models, beginning with his parents. His father instilled a dogged work ethic in him, and Nathan never stopped trying to be the best player he could be.
Nathan’s high school coach, Tandy Gerelds, “was my mentor away from home.”
Hank Erwin, the team chaplain at Woodlawn, helped nurture Nathan’s religious faith.
“When you play for yourself, you can be great,” Erwin told Nathan and his teammates. “But when you play for a purpose higher than yourself, well, that’s when extraordinary things can happen.”
Nathan and his Woodlawn teammates helped bring Birmingham together, nudging a city that was known for its commissioner of public safety (Bull Connor) opening fire hoses and unleashing police attack dogs against civil rights activists — including children — in 1963.
Birmingham also was the city where four girls were killed and 22 people were injured when the Ku Klux Klan planted and exploded sticks of dynamite at the 16th Street Baptist Church on September 15, 1963.
A decade later, Nathan and his integrated high school football team played against rival Banks High and star quarterback Jeff Rutledge. Although Banks won 18-7, a barrier had been broken down. Whites and blacks packed Legion Field to root for their team, and both races exulted in a well-played game and exhibited sportsmanship and brotherhood.
“… On that night, something tangible changed in Birmingham,” Nathan writes. “That night, a divided city came together; a wounded city began to heal.”
It’s a poignant story.
Nathan helped Alabama win a national title in 1978, and was part of two Super Bowl teams with the Dolphins in the 1980s, scoring 32 touchdowns — 16 rushing and 16 receiving. He writes of his coaching mentors — Paul “Bear” Bryant at Alabama and Don Shula at Miami — and of his time at Tampa Bay, where he worked as an assistant for Tony Dungy (“an amazing coach and an even better man.”).
Raising a family during the 1980s changed Nathan’s perspective on life. And becoming an assistant coach, working from the bottom up, was humbling, too.
“You have to sweep the floors before you can run the floor,” Nathan writes. “Learn to take out the garbage.
Shula was tough to work for, “but his work ethic rubbed off on me.”
There is one glitch I found. Nathan references a 23-12 victory against Florida on the road in 1978, when in fact, the game was played in Tuscaloosa.
Surprisingly, Nathan does not write about that famous lateral he grabbed from Duriel Harris in that 1982 playoff game. Typically, he preferred to shine the limelight on others, and always held himself accountable. Nathan now works as a bailiff in the court presided over by Ed Newman, his former Dolphins teammate. And earlier in 2015, he fulfilled the promise he made to Bryant when he earned his degree from Alabama.
“I was never the kind of guy who deflected blame to someone else,” Nathan writes. “You have to admit your errors, realize what they were, and correct them.”
“Touchdown Tony” is Nathan at his best. He had a solid college and professional career, but he excelled as a gentle, humble man who benefited from solid family values and worked hard to achieve success.